I worked on the grounds crew at Burl Oaks Golf Club in high school for four years. I absolutely loved almost every aspect of this job — mowing the greens, fairways and roughs, moving the hole placements, landscaping, washing and gassing carts. I can still smell the fresh morning air as I remember mowing greens as the sun rose over the dew covered grass on a perfect summer morning.
There was, however, one aspect of this job that was absolutely miserable — raking sand traps and bunkers. For some reason, our manager refused to purchase a riding sand pro bunker raker that operates much like a lawn tractor with front and rear rakes. Instead, he sent my buddy Jason and I out with hand rakes and helmets to rake each of the 50 or so sand traps by hand. I recall spending a couple hours in the those mini deserts on a hot, muggy 100 degree afternoon preparing for a tournament. Sand traps are hot, miserable places to be working in; and they’re even worse places to be when you’re playing a good round of golf!
For the golfer, sand traps are hazards positioned in the golf hole to guard the desired position in the landing area or green. When the average golfer finds themselves in a bunker it usually slows them down. Their next shot becomes much more difficult and they lose significant distance. Sometimes they find their ball buried deep within the sand which makes life even more difficult. Landing in the bunker forces a golfer to change their strategy and often accept a worse score on that hole.
God delivers the Israelites from Egypt and instead of a straight, direct route to the promised land (like a good drive, nice approach and 2 putt for par) they experience a 40-year hang up in the Sinai Sand Trap. The sand traps of the Bible are places of testing. The Israelites’ faith is tested and their loyalty (or lack thereof) to God will be revealed. The Israelites fail repeatedly in the Sinai Bunker, and like a frustrated beginner golfer, duff shot after shot as the ball repeatedly hits the bunker lip and rolls back to where it started. Likewise, Jesus spends 40 days and nights in a sand trap where he is tested by the devil and his true messianic identity is called into question.
The deserts are not enjoyable places, but they are also a place where God’s presence also shows up. They provide a time set apart to focus on, to ask, to consider, to respond to basic questions of the spiritual life. Bunkers slow us down and provide us with an opportunity to learn patience, perseverance and dependence.
So, the next time you find your ball “on the beach” as they say, let it remind you that the spiritual life is also filled with inconvenient seasons in the desert. And while they do often slow our game down and add a stroke or two to our scorecard, they can also be places where we can grow in patience, perseverance and a greater awareness of and reliance upon the presence of the God who climbs into the bunker with us in order to help us back out.
And the deeper you are buried in the sands of adversity, the more desperately you will need to place your faith in the God who excels in digging us out of our pits of despair:
He lifted me out of the sand pit of despair, out of sunken lie and buried ball. He set my ball back on the fairway and gave me a good lie as I continued forward in my game” (Psalm 40:2 My paraphrase).