I’ve been asked several times in the last year or so, “How is it living in community?” Well, you see, that’s not a question to take lightly. Describing living in community takes more than just a quick response to a seemingly simple question. It’s wonderful. It’s difficult. It has its ups and downs. It’s life-giving and sometimes it feels like it takes the life out of you. How are you supposed to relay all that in a simple answer?
“Stepping into community is far riskier than expected. It’s far worse than you expect it to be. But in the end, it’s far better than you could ever imagine.”
With that line, along with the rest of his new book, Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community, author Christopher Heuertz offers a thorough reflection on how it is to live in community. Granted, he takes the space of 200 pages. But this book does give some ample reflection to those ups and downs, the failures and the joys — the, indeed, unexpected gifts — of community. With an honest and open tone, Unexpected Gifts reads like a story-filled guide to relationships, to living in community, living as Church, as Christ would have us do.
Heuertz is the first to admit his mistakes, but reflecting on those shortcomings has opened a world of the good and hard-earned truths of living an honest life. He tells stories of his work and life with Word Made Flesh – work that has taken him to Romania, India, Bolivia, and many other places. He takes the reader, chapter-by-chapter, through a series of tensions and complementary resolutions, “the way of community:” from failure one to support, doubt to acceptance, transition to stability, betrayal to friendship, ingratitude to celebration, grief to contemplation, restlessness to faithfulness. Many of these tensions resonated with me — not knowing myself, doubting my path, feeling isolated among others — and Heuertz offers the consolation of acknowledging these feelings as real and necessary and good struggles. He also offers that, through community, one may find resolutions to these tensions of life.
“In community, there will always be a series of losses, giving something up to gain something more. But in the giving up, we find better versions of ourselves. And that’s not easy either.”
That uneasy finding of that better version of myself is something I’ve definitely experienced in my living in two different intentional communities over the last year and a half. There is a sense of sacrifice, a yielding of yourself for the better of the rest in community. In no way is this easy, but to say it’s not worth it would not be truthful. Relationships and communities are messy, for sure, but something more — a deeper sharing and a deeper knowing — emerges from these relationships.
Something that continues to reenter my life is the need to express more gratitude. Too often I can take things for granted. I catch myself feeling entitled to friendships around me, the job I do every day, or the food on the table in front of me. Heuertz acknowledges that failing to express thankfulness can be hurtful — hurtful to those around us, to the earth, to ourselves, and to God. Celebration of the gifts of life, love, and abundance turns the focus away from ourselves and toward a more joyful, appreciative, and grounded life. “Gratitude not only fortifies trust by validating sacrifices and gifts of love offered in relationships but lays the foundation of a culture of celebration.”
Through his very authentic book, filled with sometimes heart-breaking stories, Heuertz opens his heart to his readers, modeling the trust and vulnerability needed in community. It’s as if we are a part of his community, which, come to think of it, as a reader and fellow healthy community/relationship-seeker, we are.
Martin Witchger is Mobilizing Assistant for Sojourners.