Christopher L. Heuertz’s Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community
“The most authentic (communities) are on a continual journey of failing miserably.” (xiv)
“In our own freedom, we still go about making mistakes, disappointing ourselves and others, living with guilt, shame, regret, or fear that the consequences of our worst moments will catch up to us. Many of us have a hard time accepting the flawed parts of ourselves when we’re alone–a struggle that’s even more difficult when we’re in community.” (6) [chapter 1, failure: the patches make it beautiful]
“Grace in community brings us closer together, not in a way that creates unhealthy fusion but in one that validates the human struggle we all face.
It takes a mature community to create the safe space where a culture of confession is celebrated, where being honest is the expectation. In those kinds of relationships we don’t have to be afraid to share our deepest struggles or tragic flaws. And we learn that confession is the first step of truth-telling in that painful dance of transparency.” (13)
“That is one of the most selfless acts of abandoned love: offering yourself to one whose love many not feel returned.” (28) [chapter 2, doubt: the difference between god & santa]
“Community is an incubator in which faith and doubt can coexist. In tension and in safety, community is a place where we are free to ask tough questions. And when we don’t have good answers or the doubts start to take us to dark places, community is there to remind us of God’s faithfulness. Through one another, we experience eruptions of God’s provision or comfort, miraculous answers to prayer, and the reminder of peace that God brings when we need it most.” (30)
“We all know that the doubts will come–they should come, if we’re honest–but they don’t have to overcome us. Together we remind one another of God’s presence, faithfulness, and nearness. We do this with courage and humility. We accept that doubt and questions are natural part of faith; they they belong in our lives and our communities.” (31)
“Creative absence suggests awakening to our own recognition that our community sometimes needs a break, sometimes needs space to reorganize itself, and sometimes needs the freedom to grow without the dominant voices, the typical expectations that sometimes stifle us.” (47) [chapter 3, insulation: forgetting the fragrance]
“As soon as we walked through the door (of Trocadero) we were hit in the face by a thick fragrance of exquisite perfume that almost knocked us over. Literally thousands of dollars of designer perfume bottles fill the little shop with their heavenly scents.
I asked the young woman working that afternoon if Alice was around. Sadly, we had just missed her. I inhaled again. ‘This place smells dreamy. It must be amazing to work in here all day.’
She replied, ‘I don’t even notice it anymore.’
What a waste.
She misses out on the enjoyment of the fragrance because she’s too familiar with it. She has to withdraw from the fragrance to remember that it is here. She has to leave the store and clear her head so that when she returns she can experience the beauty of being there.
So, too, do we in community.” (48)
“Navigating transitions is one of the most significant and constant struggles a community will face. But what if most of our reasons for going are bad reasons? What if we could learn to see struggles and dissonance as reasons to stay?” (74-75) [chapter 5, transition: thirty letter and a box of wooden planks]
“When its time for someone to go, that person is usually the first to know…once a person comes to this conclusion, is there a constructive way to submit it back to the community for collective discernment?” (75)
“Even confessing our desire to leave can come across as a form of abandonment or self-centeredness. When exploring the implications of transitions, we risk being misunderstood. And the repeated misunderstanding of seeing how others’ transitions are mishandled sometimes creates a fear that it will happen to us. And so a cycle is created where transitions are announced rather than processed with a community.” (75)
“It takes courage to try to understand the reasons for transitions; understanding, or at least attempting to do so, goes a long way to salvage what is left. But we must realize that trying to understand may not mean that understanding occurs. The attempt is the goal, not always understanding itself.” (79)
“People who are emotionally healthy can recognize their own roles in the scripts of their lives. But those who aren’t tend to blame others.” (81)
“Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to make a transition smooth and honoring, things end badly. Inevitably, there will be times when someone isn’t ready to go but need to leave. Sometimes differences can’t be ironed out, and our bet attempts at understanding will still come up lacking. And if we’re honest, there will be times when everyone involved in a transition contributes to the painful messiness of it not being handled well.
In these instances it’s still important to honor the process. When we purposely put our differences aside and choose not to speak negatively of a transitioned community member or a former community, it goes a long way toward a possible future of reconciliation.” (88-89)
“Usually it’s a good idea to let our friends defend us rather than trying to defend ourselves.” (89)
“Transitions handled well lead to stability.” (90)
“One such problem occurs when men & women who share a natural, effortless chemistry forge deep friendships or intense working relationships. Without the parameters of maturity to guide how these relationships are nurtured, affairs or sexual misconduct seem to sneak up on people. Rather than recognizing the sometimes awkward but obvious attraction between people, they usually pull back from the potential of cultivating relationships–both friendships and working partnerships–with someone to whom they’re attracted.
But when accountable and transparent boundaries go overlooked, when communities (especially those made up largely of women but led by men) play to the potential weaknesses, vulnerabilities, or immaturities of men in these kinds of relationships, they end up further limiting the participation of women–and this is simply another form of misogyny or patriarchy.” (136) [chapter 8, incompatibility: when together is too close]
“It’s not fair to say I was a victim of my religious solicitation, but I would say I felt a good bit stifled in the church and Christian university that incubated my passage to adulthood. Within a heterosexist environment, the instruction given to me and my peers suggested that members of the opposite sex should never work alone together behind closed doors and should never travel alone together or even share a meal without one of their partners present.
This seemed to be sensible advice for anyone for whom chemistry and attraction may be an issue, but it implied that adults couldn’t control themselves. It also disqualified the possibility that navigating attraction and chemistry was a gift in and of itself. Rather than teaching self-awareness, I, as a man attracted to women, was taught to avoid the potential of working with women–specifically, though never explicitly stated, attractive women around my age group.
This was not so subtly modeled in many of the religious communities I participated in. Almost without exception, the secretaries that pastors or other religious professionals hired were older, and either they were expected to exhibit a certain sense of primness and distance or they were perceived to lack any sort of visible dynamic sexual energy.” (139)
“Without maturity, a healthy sense of boundaries, and a disciplined sense of self-control, setting policies may well be necessary. But we can be better, and we can do better. We can name effortless chemistry as a gift in community, and we can learn to handle it in honoring ways. Otherwise, we dishonor one another by reducing one another to potential threats–placing the blame on the threat rather than owning up to our vulnerabilities.” (140)
“First we have to affirm the reality and inevitability that there will be someone in our circle of friends or community to whom we are or will eventually be attracted. For some of us, this might feel like an uncomfortable confession, but making it an observation untangles any sense of fear associated with this possibility. We are human; attractions will happen. It’s that simple.
I’m concerned about people who aren’t able to be honest with them selves about this. When we’re not candid regarding such things or when we try to push these urges deep within ourselves to deny or avoid them, they end up sanding down part of the dynamic nature of our humanity. Even worse, like trying to hold a beach ball under water, the further down we push these things, the higher they come flying up when we finally do lose control.” (140-141)
“Recognizing effortless chemistry between people can allow us to harness the creative energy toward our own personal wholeness. Unfortunately, what typically happens is that we overreact when attraction seems to sneak up on us in our community or relationships. The ensuing knee-jerk correction can lead to establishing boundaries that are intended to protect ourselves but sometimes end up by limiting all of our relationships. The challenge is not to legislate the boundaries of all our relationships based on our most vulnerable ones but to take each relationship for what it is and find the gifts therein.” (141-142)
“Maybe our growth curse as we relate to compatibility, chemistry, and attraction in friendships is creating accountability around our personal weaknesses. This will require profound honesty to confess emotional fusion, intense attraction, sexual energy, or ease of connection to those with whom we are closest. Usually this doesn’t seem like the greatest of ideas–to tell the person we’re attracted to that we’re experiencing impulses or urges that we don’t know what to do with or how to handle. A better first step may be to take our concerns to our spiritual director, closest friends, a trusted coworker, or community member. And yes, in some cases, our partners.
Naming our own vulnerabilities forces accountability. Taking our vulnerabilities to those we trust allows us to guide and monitor our blind spots.” (142)
“In this charming little story (The Housekeep and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa) we discover the difficulty of faithfulness in the mundane. Just think of the dazzling, deep discoveries we’d find if only we had the fortitude in our friendships, communities, or vocations to keep showing up, even when it’s unappreciated or unnoticed.” (178) [chapter eleven, restlessness: faithful in the undramatic]
“Mother Teresa would speak to me of calling and service, always bringing our conversations back to Christ and our need to look for him among those in poverty. She would frequently say, ‘Pray the work.'” (182)
“Many of us are surprised when we encounter boredom in our communities, relationships, and vocations. We are surprised when we find ourselves living restless, discontented lives. We want more. We want meaning. We want to be part of things that are significant and vocations that make a difference.” (186)
“It’s during those dry times, those painful periods of boredom or frustration, that we see what we’re really made of. Some of us give in and jump to the next most exciting thing, only to realize that the excitement there also wears thin. Until we awaken to the need to vocational fidelity in the hard times, many of us live in serial transitions, or live like career-change junkies, always needing a more intense vocational ‘hit’ to hold our attention.” (186)
“The unlikely gifts of being committed and staying take a while to discover, but once realized they are some of the most deeply satisfying experiences of life.” (187)
“I can’t count how many times I’ve heard a community member say, ‘I’m just unhappy’ or ‘I’m having a hard time finding joy in what I’m doing here.’ I’ve had those same feelings. Certainly they are fair and honest statements that speak to authentic experiences. Often these sentiments are important realizations for people in discerning when a vocational or community transition is necessary. Typically though, they become the ruts that fortify patterns. They become habit-forming rationalizations that people use to allow themselves to jump from relationship to relationship, and we see a lot of people moving from church to church, community to community, or job to job, looking for something different.” (188)
“The false self within us wants to inflate our perceptions of who we are, what we should be doing, how we can control our vocational expressions better. The unconscious motivations of our false selves, exposed through contemplative spirituality, pressure us to be people of significance, importance, or value.
This reminds me of a conversation between Jean Vanier and Samuel Wells, the former chaplain at Duke University. Sam had the privilege of meeting Vanier for breakfast. Vanier has given his life in selfless service among some of our world’s most vulnerable people, adults with mental disabilities. In 1964, Jean Vanier moved into a small house with two men, Raphael and Philippe. The two men had been institutionalized because of their developmental disabilities. Vanier wanted to offer them something different, a home. That first home in Trosly-Breuil, France, launched L’Arche, a worldwide movement birthing hundreds of places of peace where communities learned to serve one another.
Curious about the strains on such a demanding vocation, Wells asked Vanier what the hardest part of his vocation was. He anticipated an answer suggesting the weariness of working with people.
Vanier’s reply? ‘If you really want to know, the hardest part is when young people come from college, and they stay with us for a summer, or maybe for a year. And they say, “This has been the most amazing experience of my life–I’ve learnt to see the world so differently and value things so truly and ponder things so deeply.” They say it’s been transformative. And then they leave. And I think, “If it’s all been so fantastic and transformative, why are you leaving?”‘
I’ve heard a similar version of those sentiments more times than I want to remember. Over our community’s past twenty years we’ve seen hundreds of people join us on four-month internships, as well as staying with us for fifteen or more years. Many of them have found a home among us, many of them have discovered their vocation, yet they can’t get past their own restlessness. They want to keep chasing down the next experience that they think will help them discover more of themselves.
In that honest and intimate conversation with Vanier, Wells responded, ‘Ah, but don’t you see, if life is fundamentally the accumulation of experiences, you have to leave, otherwise, you’d have to rethink your whole life.’
Ever so gently Vanier replied, ‘Oh, so people leave because they’re frightened of who they’re becoming if they stay.’
Becoming the best versions of ourselves often requires that we stay. Stay when things get hard. Stay when we get bored. Stay when we experience periods of unhappiness. Stay when the excitement wears off. Stay when we don’t like those we’re in community with. Stay when we fail or ar betrayed. Stay when we know who we can become if we have courage to be faithful in the undramatic.” (188-190)