My first visit to the neighborhood we now call home left me feeling like some kind of alien. At that point, my wife and I lived in a village in Alaska that boasted of having about 800 to 1100 people, more or less, depending on the fishing season. We had some seven miles of roadway—none of it paved, of course, and you could climb a few hundred yards up the volcano behind our house and see everything in town. To be in a place they called a ‘neighborhood’ that claimed some 750 houses felt incredibly foreign.
In addition to the look-alike streets and way-too-similar houses, there were scores of things called cul-de-sacs tucked here and there. When I first heard the term, I didn’t know what it was, but it was clear to this southern Virginia country boy that whoever invented it wasn’t from around here. What they were calling a ‘cul-de-sac’ was pretty much the same thing that in my younger days was just a ‘dead-end’. I guessed that somewhere along the line, some real estate developer looked at a short little street with no outlet and realized that no matter what kind of catchy name you call it, people weren’t generally going to like living on a dead-end street. Then a blend of creativity and ambition, and maybe a little extra caffeine, erupted into the vision of a big circle at the ‘dead-end’ where you could turn around without having to back up. Add a weird, foreign sounding name to the circle, cram a bunch of pie shaped building lots around it, tell people how special it was to have a house in one of them, and ‘Voila!’—real estate nirvana. After all, any old ‘Tom-Dick-and Harry’ could park themselves along a commonplace sounding ‘Street’, ‘Lane’, ‘Road’, or ‘Drive’. But if you lived in a revamped dead end, you could put on your best imitation of cosmopolitan flair and casually mention that you live at live at ‘1507 Slightly-Better-Than-You-Are… Circle’.
Whatever else you call them, cul-de-sacs are still dead-ends, but now they’re blessed with market value and curb appeal. Cul-de-sacs enable us to do something we couldn’t do before. The big circle makes it possible to drive around in a dead-end all day if you want to. You might not want to take an extended road trip around a cul-de-sac, but you could. You might find that the houses and landscaping present a pleasing scenic backdrop as you drive around in your climate controlled, entertainment equipped vehicle, and it could be a satisfying trip, unless of course you actually wanted to get somewhere outside the circle.
Circles present an interesting phenomenon in terms of travel. They allow you to momentarily claim movement in every direction on the compass without the option of committing to any one of them. A circular traveler’s ultimate destination is pre-determined, because circles are an endless series of arriving and then leaving again, of gaining a point and then abandoning it, only to move back in its direction again. Cul-de-sacs can become scenic roads to nowhere.
It should be noted that side trips with a few brief loops now and then may not be wholly without benefit. They can be instructive, rejuvenating, and therapeutic. The danger arises with the temptation to stay there. Staying too long, and mistaking the diversion for the intended destination causes cul-de-sacs to become carnivorous toward those who linger. Scenic roads to nowhere devour dreams, consume opportunities, and swallow up resources.
Moses reveals that getting caught in circular travels isn’t a new thing. He noted this,
“Then we turned, and took our journey into the wilderness by the way of the Red Sea, as the LORD spoke unto me: and we skirted (circled) Mount Seir many days. And the LORD spoke unto me, saying, you have skirted (circled) this mountain long enough: turn northward” (Deuteronomy 2:1 NKJV).
Though God may have been accomplishing some things as they traveled, He did not bring them out of Egypt to meander around Mt. Seir for the rest of their lives. They had a preordained destination, and they could never get there traveling in circles, so God said, “Head northward.” That was a clear and uncomplicated command, but it came with some responsibilities and some challenges. The simple act of heading northward, for instance, demanded the rejection of every other potential direction. Since singular directions are inherently incompatible with circles, obeying God’s command required that they abandon their familiar cycle altogether. Perhaps they discovered as so many of us have, that the term ‘uncomplicated’ does not always serve as a synonym for ‘easy’. There was a promise waiting for them out there somewhere, but the territory separating them from it was uncharted and filled with real and potential enemies.
Circles can draw us into a love affair with familiarity. Their seductive predictability can be a ‘siren’s song’ with frightening power to bind us in their territory. We can even develop a warped sense of fulfillment in arriving repeatedly at a place whose only real provision is an affirmation that we have gone nowhere.
Our clocks and calendars tend to woo us into the deceptive illusion that life itself is somehow circular. We can be easily seduced into believing that the passing scenery and the changes in our mileage and fuel gauges mean that our journey is actually taking us somewhere. That is a tragic deception, because just as God did not bring His people out of Egypt to play ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ at the base of Mt. Seir, Jesus did not send His followers out to meander around a scenic road to nowhere.
Having purpose and direction is a powerful, but costly thing. It’s challenging to look at our lives, our families, our ministries, and our work and ask whether we’re really getting somewhere, or merely coming back to the same places over and over again. Breaking out is hard, because circles can be appealing—great scenery, smooth roads, predictable points, and friendly neighbors, but what if the promise isn’t in there? What if getting to God’s promise requires abandoning every other direction than the one He called us to? And what if He wants to take us somewhere we’ve never been? After all, Jesus called us to life, and regardless of how appealing it looks or what name we apply to it, a cul-de-sac is still just a dead-end.
© 2015 Gallagher’s Pen, Ronald L. Gallagher, Ed.S. All rights reserved.
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Once again, you have managed to put an important concept- breaking out of our routines- into a memorable picture that’s easy to relate to our lives. thank you for your vision and the nudge you give us to get out and serve our powerful God.