You can’t get a more American summer than the open road. Asphalt stretches in a straight line; the boundaries are clear: you stay on your side of the yellow line. Yet the road holds out endless possibilities: you can stop anywhere, be anyone, change direction. The windows are rolled down, your arm carelessly hung out as if you were swimming through the thick air. You feel like you’re on the cover of a magazine—summer edition—the wind whipping your hair, and all that is lies ahead is the open road. On the road we take to philosophizing about where we’ve been and where we’re going. We’re quick to buy the travel guides, the glossy magazines and scroll through Instagram (#vanlife), because they promise transformation at the bend of the road. We’re not just traveling down the Interstate at 70 mph, we’re on an adventure to find ourselves.
If the “road is life” as Jack Kerouac wrote, it seems in our American psyche to take to the road when the temperatures rise. We, like Huck Finn, move west and “light out for the territory,” when (for us) the going gets tough in our cubicles. We take to the road not always to check off places on our bucket list, but more likely to get away from where we’ve been, to dream about the future, to imagine all the lives we could have and still could live. The road promises endless time. There are more places, more people, more adventures, and always one more story to tell.When people are wary of the church, these places show us what community can be: parties, music, good food, experiencing a good story, and the careful art of negotiating communal relationships when you live in proximity to others.
In the suburban corner where I live, we’re more likely to fill up the spaces of summer with forms of leisure to check out: a spa for the work-weary, a cruise or a string of summer camps for our bored children, a beach and an umbrella drink for the worn-down mother. We look for any place that will uproot us, that will take us from our exhausted ordinary spaces. Summer offers the space of escape—whether it’s by the pool, through our beach read, or the fancy vacation. But for many of us, we don’t realize how we’ve fashioned the space of summer into another fillable time slot with our own privileged pursuit of leisure. Because the world feels altogether too much for us, we fill up summertime spaces by escaping our neighborly spaces and instead focus on attaining transformation—not a deep soul work, but one that’s promised in the bend of the horizon, or found through the latest cleanse, or by sending our children away. These of course always cost more time and money—luxuries of the privileged.
The magazine covers say “get away” and “you deserve it,” but the road trip and the fancy vacation are for the privileged few who can afford to get away. The privilege of class, wealth, and race, allows us to chase the great escape, while the escape never provides the freedom and transformation we long for. We are, instead, unmoored.
Is there something better than escaping the lives we now live? What if the spaces of summertime were more about rootedness in our places than escape from our places?
When I pick up my travel magazine and feel the itch to leave it all for a bit—as if taking the Great American Road Trip would answer all my existential longings for limitless freedom, while holding out the tantalizing carrot of a life well-placed and well-lived—I’m reminded of wheat, oil, wine, and bread. Simple things. Daily things. Not the fancy shrimp ceviche on the beach, but the things you use to make your day-to-day food.
As I read the Gospels, these are the elements that Jesus keeps going on about, teaching as he and his disciples take to the dusty road. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. The kingdom is like a net. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. And when the kingdom of heaven is likened to a great treasure or a precious pearl, it’s never in the context of high-tailing it out of daily life and spending a no-holds-barred weekend in Vegas. The treasure is found right smack dab in the middle of a dusty field—right in the business dealings of daily life.
What if the spaces of summertime were right in the middle of our daily life, too, hidden in plain sight?
We spend much of our summer not in week-long sports camps, but at the local movie theaters with their weekly dollar shows and at our neighborhood concerts. These are a far cry from the Hawaiian vacations, epic road trips, and the fancy meals of summer. But these are the spaces of summer I want my children to remember. These are our weekly liturgies that press me away from pursuing comfort and glorifying the nuclear family. These are my bread and wine, my oil, and where I find the pearl of great price.
On Tuesday mornings, we smuggle our snacks into the theater. I herd my four children through the dark aisles while we try to not bump too many knees or get our feet stuck to the floor with sticky residue. We sit down to watch a movie most of us have probably seen on Netflix, but with what-feels-like fancy plush seats to my little ones and the allure of a soda at the bottom of Mama’s purse, we feel like we’re living it up. The movies give us plentiful air conditioning, special treats, and like every good story told in words or on the screen, the hope of glory.
As I take pains to remind my children (in loud whispers) to not kick and hang on the chair in front of us, or to not talk, I’m teaching them the fine art of neighboring. In these dollar shows, we rub shoulders (literally) with our neighbors and we must respond, not by escape but by the back-and-forth of neighborliness in small phrases: “I’m sorry I kicked your chair.” “Excuse me, could we get by?” and, when magic strikes on screen, we get to be a part of experiencing the story together not just as a family, but also as a community. The kingdom of God is like a sticky theater floor.
It’s also like a neighborhood concert. In our suburb, for several Friday nights in summer, neighbors gather for free community concerts to hear Top 40 songs, 80s throwback bands, and groove to “Grease Lightning” while we picnic on the grass. We find a patch of grass, spread out our blankets and chairs and feast on what my children call “snacky dinner.” After we’ve eaten our salami and cheese and mom and dad have had some wine and a few minutes of uninterrupted conversation, I join my barefooted children on the cool grass. We shout to be heard. Just feet from the stage, our ears ring with music. We twirl, we spin, we laugh, and we don’t care who’s watching because all our neighbors are doing it too. A woman comes over to tell me how she’s impressed with my three-year-old’s dance moves. I get a few minutes to groove with my almost 10-year-old son. I tuck away in memory his broadening shoulders, his silly grin, and his new emoji hat, and most of all, how he’s still un-self-conscious on the dance floor with me. The kids dance and play tag, and we rock, me and the neighborhood, with our Solo cups high in the air, reliving some of the magic of live art and nostalgia for our childhoods and youthful dancing.
I know, even while I’m dancing, this is not high art, that concerts major on nostalgia—often “ersatz nostalgia,” a nostalgia for something we haven’t even experienced. And I know that our collective wealth in our Home Owner’s Association secured the concert booking and the venue. But I also know we don’t get this sense of being in community in many other places than church (and only then if you’re lucky), so I can’t help but dance and shake with sheer joy. Because the kingdom of heaven is like a great treasure in a grassy field. I stomp my feet, I swing my children around. We laugh. Because on the grassy dance floor, we run into old friends, we make new ones, and (like at the movies) we get to part of something larger than ourselves, and larger than our nuclear families. There, listening to everything from Bon Jovi to Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” we’re more than couples. More than families. We are a community.
These are our neighborhood watering holes in the midst of suburbia. We might not have a local pub where people congregate, or Parisian salons, or university lectures that the town turns out to hear. These are our third spaces where people tend to gather. When people are wary of the church, these places show us what community can be: parties, music, good food, experiencing a good story, and the careful art of negotiating communal relationships when you live in proximity to others. If we’re watching for it, these spaces can blossom into more than just consumption of good stories, good food, and good music. Here we raise a glass to other tired parents, we laugh with rowdy kids, we remember our youth, and we share our bread and wine. We need these ordinary spaces, these ordinary elements, not so we can escape from our places but so we can be more fully a part of it. Such is the kingdom of God.
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