This reading group guide forUnexpected Giftsincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
From sitcoms to reality TV, the portrayal of our collective longing for connection and community is pervasive. The theme song of Cheers echoes in our ears: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.” And yet, if everyone wants community, why is loneliness so common, even (sometimes especially) within communities of faith? In his book, Unexpected Gifts, Chris Heuertz describes the counter-consumerism practices and commitments that are necessary for communities of faith to grow and be sustained.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “community”? After reading this book, would you say you are living in community or are you longing for community? Describe the contrast the author draws in the introduction between “connecting” together at The House of Loom and the necessary commitment of life together as a community.
2. The author describes eleven challenges that often show up in the midst of communities. Which one(s) did you identify with the most? Are there any you would add to the list?
3. How do you respond to failure—in your own life and in the lives of others? What qualities in a person or community does the author describe in chapter 1 that create the “safe space where a culture of confession is celebrated”? What are some specific ways you can cultivate these qualities in your life?
4. How are doubts about faith and God handled in your faith tradition? On page 24, the author quotes his priest’s words: “the opposite of faith isn’t doubt but certainty.” Do you agree? Have you experienced a season of doubt in your life of faith? How did you respond to your doubts? Describe ways that worshipping together can be a sustaining practice in response to doubt within a community.
5. The author quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the beginning of chapter 3: “Let [those] who cannot be alone beware of community . . . Let [those] who [are] not in community beware of being alone.” With which group do you most identify (i.e., cannot be alone or not in community)? What are some gifts of solitude? Have you experienced solitude and/or sabbatical as an enriching gift to your life in community? Describe.
6. On page 51, the author proposes reviewing the last ten calls or texts made on your cell phone to highlight the diversity of your relationships. What did you learn about your relationships as a result of this exercise? What are some common attitudes and practices you have observed that create a spirit of openness and inclusion within a community?
7. On pages 84 to 87, the author describes phases that often follow a transition within a community. Can you relate these phases to a time when you decided to leave a group, church, community, etc.? How did you respond to these phases (even though you may not have named them at the time)? Throughout chapter 5, the author mentions several factors that, when present, contribute to transitions that are honoring and affirming for everyone involved. Make a list of these factors and discuss ways that they can be encouraged and nurtured.
8. Are there any transitions you have been part of that ended with hurt and unresolved conflict? In chapter 5, the author describes the process of communication he initiated in an effort to restore and reconcile hurtful transitions from Word Made Flesh. Are there any principles from this story that you sense God leading you to apply in unresolved conflicts in your life?
9. On page 97, the author lists three lies that lead to flawed identity: “I am what I have,” “I am what I do,” and “I am what other people think about me.” Which of these is the greatest temptation for you? What are the most common names you call yourself (other than your given name)? When you hear the name “Beloved,” what is your response?
10. In chapter 6, the author highlights various scriptures that point to the restoration of humanity in Christ. How do you feel about your human needs, desires, and limitations? How do the author’s reflections about embracing your humanity in chapter 6 impact you? St. Irenaeus is quoted as saying, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” In light of this chapter’s reflections, what might this phrase mean?
11. What is your response to the author’s beginning assumption in chapter 7: “However it happens, all of us betray our communities and friendships and all of us are betrayed by them”? Have you experienced betrayal in a relationship? How did you respond? Have you experienced someone’s “fidelity to love in the midst of betrayal”?
12. How did the story of the author’s friendship with Tuna (page 120) impact you? Do you relate to the author’s reflection that “most of our friendships can be incredibly self-serving or self-affirming”? Do you have friends in your life who have loved you, regardless of your accomplishments or failures? What is required to be that kind of friend?
13. How have communities you have been part of modeled relationships between men and women? What does the author propose as an alternative to avoidance in approaching the inevitability of attraction and chemistry within a community? What is your response to the author’s recommendations?
14. On page 151, the author says: “A good host needs a good guest.” What are qualities of a good host, based on your experiences? What are qualities of a good guest?
15. When you receive a gift (or compliment), how do you respond? What is the difference between acknowledging a gift and gratitude?
16. In chapter 10, the author relays the graphic story of the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. How did reading this story impact you? What is your response to injustice and suffering in the world?
17. The author describes the decision he and his wife made to remain childless, choosing to live their lives on behalf of the “plundered childhood of many of our little friends, younger brothers and sisters.” Are there choices you have made in your life to say “no” to something good so that you can say “yes” to something God is inviting you to give yourself to wholeheartedly? What spiritual practices are necessary to cultivate a heart that is available to listen and discern and then follow God’s leading?
18. How are action and contemplative prayer related, according to the author’s reflections at the end of Chapter 10? On page 173, the author defines centering prayer as “active consent to the divine presence of God.” How is this similar to/different from the prayer you have practiced?
19. Has there been a time in your life when you chose to stay in a relationship or community when things got boring or didn’t feel satisfying? What was the impact of staying—on you and the relationship/community? In what ways do our cultural norms and practices encourage or discourage commitment and “staying”?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. After answering question #9 above, read The Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen. At your next book club, discuss the impact that embracing your belovedness (your true identity) has on the way you relate to others.
2. Commit to spend 20 minutes per day for one month practicing the contemplative prayer practice of lectio divina or centering prayer. Ask God for the grace to know and experience His love for you and to receive the name He calls you. Be still, listen, receive. Discuss your experiences at your next book club.
3. Pick one of the stories about injustice and suffering from Unexpected Gifts that particularly moved you. Spend some time asking God how you can be involved in fighting injustice and responding to suffering. Be aware of connections and opportunities that arise in response to your openness and availability. Discuss your experiences at your next book club.
4. Start a gratitude journal. Take 10 minutes at the end of each day to reflect on the day and enjoy and give thanks for the gifts you received through the day, both from God and from others. Or, write a letter to someone who has been a gift to your life, thanking them for their friendship and care. Discuss your experiences at your next book club.