Finding Unexpected Gifts in Community

Brad M. Griffin | Mar 22, 2013

Lately I’ve been reading Chris Heuertz’s new book Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community. I’ve been a fan of Chris’ and the organization he has helped lead for the past twenty years, Word Made Flesh. A number of my college friends have served—some still serving—in Word Made Flesh’s global community serving among the world’s most vulnerable and exploited persons.

Tracking with their journeys over the years, I’ve been moved by the depth of commitment to living in community that marks the ethos of Word Made Flesh. At times they have been identified with a new monastic movement, given these intense lifestyle commitments. I have to confess, it can be easy for me to view covenanted communities from a distance and romanticize what appears to be a close, fulfilling life together.

Unexpected Gifts wastes no time dismantling these notions.

From the foreword by Richard Rohr to reflections on the Word Made Flesh community, the raw honesty of this book wakes us up to the harsh realities of shared life. It’s hard. It requires fidelity in the midst of frustration and betrayal. It leaves us raw and broken. In other words, while we may approach community with idealistic hopes of what it will be, so often the hardest lessons we must learn involve giving up all of our romanticization of what “community” really looks like.

What’s hopeful, however, is the premise of the book: in spite of the brokenness we find in any community, we also find unexpected gifts. The gifts are themselves born out of the very struggles and failures we usually hope to avoid when we enter a community.

My own church struggles with the idealization of community. After reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic Life Together recently, a group within our church wondered aloud whether we actually idolize community—and the unrealistic expectations we place upon it to fulfill our needs—as an end in itself rather than something God uses to form us into the likeness of Christ. To paraphrase Bonhoeffer, when we love our dream of community more than the community itself, we destroy it.

I see this play out in my neighborhood as well, a block with a lot of shared space and life in ways that resemble intentional community living. We play together, laugh and cry together, share meals and cups of sugar when they’re missing from our pantries. But it’s also hard. Some days I wish all of my neighbors were more like me. Sometimes I get hurt by their decisions, or hurt them with my own. The problem is often that I have an agenda for my community and I’m faced with the ways the very real people within it are failing to live up to my expectations.

Reflecting on years of similar experiences from people who have come into his community with their own agendas and left disillusioned, Heuertz writes: “Without authentic relationships, community is merely a backdrop for someone’s experience of self-discovery, and community members are used up along the way” (p 120).

One of the gifts of community, then, is the promise that we will disappoint, fail, and even betray one another at times. Why bother with all this? Heuertz suggests, “The diversity and richness that arise out of being bound up with others produces a holy space. It invites God to meet with us and among us” (preface, xxii).

What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve discovered through community?

Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content for the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, blogger, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of Faith in an Anxious World, Growing Young, several Sticky Faith books, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, and the series Can I Ask That?: 8 Hard Questions about God and Faith. Brad and his family live in Southern California.

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