Covid is over or eventually over. You got places to go, people to meet. Before you book your trip for your next holiday, why don’t you consider reading today’s book? Who knows, you might get some soul-enriching ideas for your next destination.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Going Places with God: A Devotional Journey through the Lands of the Bible” by Wayne Stiles. 176 pages, originally published by Regal in December 2006. The ebook version I am reading is published by Revell in 2014. Available for USD8.99 in Amazon Kindle and free from Faithlife’s Free Book of the Month programme. Today’s book is free for June and only June.
“Going Places with God” is a devotional book. In this book, we have a foreword from Charles Swindoll, 90 days worth of devotionals and right at the end a travelogue from the author’s trip to Israel.
Who is Wayne Stiles? What makes him ‘qualified’ to bring us on a devotional tour through the lands of the Bible? He isn’t a historian or an archaeologist. He presents himself as a believer who visited Israel in the year 2000 and never recovered. The experience just filled him up and continued to do so. This book is an outlet for what he wants to share with more brothers and sisters in Christ. He presents to you the Lands of the Bible.
What You Get In Each Page
For each devotional, you have at the top of the page a Scripture reference. Read that first. Then you have 1-2 pages of Stiles’ devotion material. He ends with a short prayer, a snappy quotation and references to maps which can be found in the book.
There are 90 devotionals for you to read a day at a time. I don’t recommend you do what I did which is read the whole book in a few seatings. If devotions are meals, they should be slow-cooked, not microwaved.
With so many good devotionals in the market, and many freely available online and in your phone apps, why read this book? It’s a devotional journey through the lands of the Bible.
Let’s do a quick quiz.
Can you find on a world map, Israel? I can think of at least five reasons why you should. Moses, David, Jesus, Gaza, Armageddon.
If I give you a map of Israel, can you pinpoint Jerusalem? How about Bethel and Bethlehem? What about Jericho and Nazareth?
Now if I put a map of Jerusalem in front of you, can you locate the Garden of Gethsemane, Calvary Hill or the empty tomb?
At this point, maybe some of you are thinking, “Why do I need to know where these places are when I can just use Google Maps?” The answer is this book. Read the book and you will see how helpful geography, biblical geography is, to your faith. There once was a time when Stiles was unconvinced but that all changed.
Listen to what Stiles has to say:
For the vast majority of my Christian life and ministry, the benefits of understanding the land of the Bible remained hidden like artifacts in the sand. I possessed knowledge of the place names, but they played no role in my study of the Bible except to distract and confuse me. Because I couldn’t appreciate a site’s contribution to the biblical narrative, I dismissed the unfamiliar as irrelevant or, at the very least, of minor importance.
But when my wife and I took our first trip to Israel . . . it all changed.
I rank the experience of learning biblical geography on the level of learning Hebrew and Greek—probably even higher. I discovered an integral part of Bible study I had missed all my life. Like seeing the whole puzzle put together, I was now able to see the individual sites in light of the whole. I became aware of a cohesion and logic as to why God included geography in the inspired text. My memory of biblical events was strengthened by associating the events with their geographical locations. What I had dismissed earlier as irrelevant I began to recognize as an essential part of God’s dealing with His people.
Let me repeat for emphasis one sentence: “I became aware of a cohesion and logic as to why God included geography in the inspired text.”
Cohesion? Logic? Isn’t logic seen in the text? “For… if… how much more…” Pastor John Piper’s life and ministry transformed when he saw the Bible not as a bunch of quotations but as a series of propositions. Logic! Now Wayne Stiles is telling us there is logic in geography.
In the introduction he writes:
… in biblical times, the place itself often played a major role in the significant events that occurred there. Beside the place where water gushed from the ground, there a man drove his tent stake—and so laid the foundation of a city. Rains ran through immovable ravines, and beside those rivers people cultivated their fields and watered their livestock. Where the easiest ground to travel lay, there a wayfarer walked—and so a highway began. Geography affects history.
And he gives examples after examples, ninety times over.
In Day 4’s devotion titled, “A Strategic Move”. He writes:
A thriving fishing village, Capernaum straddled the international highway that stretched from Syria to Egypt. By choosing Capernaum, Jesus selected a city that enjoyed a constant flow of people who could carry His message to many places. And that’s just what happened. As Jesus preached in Galilee, “news about Him spread throughout all Syria” (v. 24). Not only did travelers take the news north into Syria, but they also took it by other roads into “Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan” (v. 25).
This book does not aim to just serve you geographical insights. This is not a factbook of interesting trivia to share in your next sermon or bible study. You can get that from an atlas. Or a geographical commentary. Yes, such a wonderful thing exists. This is a devotional book.
If I can illustrate it for you. Imagine you are on a lifeboat at sea for many days, maybe weeks, you are delirious. Water and food is running out. Then you see land. You row towards land. You reach land. You jump out of the boat and kiss the soil. And your eyes go to Heaven and you thank God for your salvation.
Okay, that picture might be a tad exaggerated. But the idea is the land brings you nearer to God. That is clearly seen in how every devotion lands on a prayer.
For example, in the Capernaum devotion, where he describes Jesus moving to Capernaum as a strategic move, he leads the reader to pray:
Lord Jesus, rather than pursuing a place to hide where I can escape the irritation of people and culture’s corruption, help me to see my world through Your eyes. Place me in places where I can have the greatest influence for Your kingdom. Show me today how to seek first the kingdom of God—above my own preferences.
He then closes the chapter with a quotation and a map reference. The quotation is from David Livingstone:
I will place no value on anything I have or possess unless it is in relationship to the kingdom of God. —David Livingstone
You will see familiar names: Corrie ten Boom, C.S. Lewis and Jonathan Edwards and some not so familiar names: John Flavel, Thomas Adams, George Swinnock and so on. Names that hopefully will become more familiar to you over time.
Last of all, he gives you references to maps that are included in the book.
So what I just shared is an example of Day Four in this book.
I Need A Map To Find The Map
As part of my review, let me first talk about the maps. The maps are scattered amongst the devotions and the way they are placed is not helpful.
Let’s go back to Capernaum in Day Four. You read about it, you don’t know where it is, you check the map reference and it tells you to go to page 28, 56, 70 and 112. You have to thumb your way to the pages. The problem is the electronic copy doesn’t have pages and I shouldn’t need to change the setting to see the pages so that I can get to the maps. The references should be hyperlinked. I see the reference. I click on it and I jump to the map.
If hyperlinking is a problem, there is another solution which is to just group the maps and put them all at the end of the book as an appendix. That’s what most writers or publishers would do. So I’m not sure why that was not done here.
Random Walk Journey
My next criticism is the subtitle is a devotional journey. Keyword: Journey. I suggest an improvement is an actual journey from one point to another. I know that can be difficult because you have the Old Testament, the New Testament and there are many stories of different people at different times in different places.
For example, at Day 10 in the book, I’m in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. In the next day, I’m at the country of the Gadarenes. Then next, I’m at the Negev. Maybe I expect too much logic or structure in my geographical devotional journey but I like how Saint Luke arranged his travelogue to progress from point to point.
I can guess why Wayne Stiles mixed the places all up in his devotion. You get variety, it’s like taking M&Ms from a bag. But I just think if it’s arranged as a journey or many journeys: Moses’ escape from Egypt to the Promised Land or pilgrims from Jericho ascending to Jerusalem or Jesus turning his face from Galilee towards Golgotha, any of these journeys can help reinforce the cohesion and logic in biblical geography. The land we came from connects to the land we are heading towards.
That’s my take on the journey keyword. What about the devotional keyword?
Does this book help a Christian in devotion? That made me ask: What makes a good devotional?
I jotted down some answers. It’s not complete. May even be wrong. But this is what I got. A devotional should direct the heart and mind and soul of the reader towards God like how the Psalms does. A devotional should help us gain a knowledge of God and our relation to God. Ultimately, a devotional draws us nearer to God.
But having said that, ultimately whether or not you come near to God depends less on the book and more on you. A devotion book jumpstarts the engine but it is not the engine. It doesn’t drive the car. A devotional book is a starting point for the scatter-brain, weak-spirited, malnourished life, and this book is as good as any devotional in that regard, but for a devotional to work, the reader’s heart must kneel before God. Which brings us back to the question, what makes a good devotional? Consider: What makes Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening a devotional classic? I’m still thinking on this question because I think an answer to this will help me be a better book reviewer.
Before I move on to the next topic, I leave you with this thought. A devotional that brings you nearer to God could be a devotional you write for yourself. That would be called a journal. I know many fellow believers who have gained so much from journalling. I think it’s a great practice and one I encourage you to consider.
One form of a journal is the travelogue. Stiles has a travelogue in this book. He doesn’t mention it anywhere. It’s almost like an afterthought. I think it’s the best part of the book.
It is his own devotional journey through the land. What I like about the book is he doesn’t sensationalise the experience. Or rather I should say the experience is sensational without exaggeration. Here he writes of his journey towards Jerusalem:
This winding way snakes up nearly 4,000 feet in elevation toward the watershed of the Hill Country of Israel. And I had almost come to the top. Almost to Jerusalem.
Craning my neck as high as I could, I waited to capture that first view of the city I had imagined all my life. Suddenly, we reached the crest. And there it was below me . . . a panoramic view crowned with the golden Dome of the Rock. I saw Jerusalem. I really, really saw it.
But no shafts of light from heaven. No angels singing the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Not even a respectful hush on the bus of travelers with me. Just a few clicks from cameras and horns from the cars behind. I saw the city of Jerusalem . . . in all its ordinariness.
And it remains one of the most special moments of my life.
The best travelogues makes would-be travellers out of readers. After this book, I am tempted to set aside money to make the trip. I tell myself I need to be fit for all those walks. I am more motivated to study Scripture, especially the land so as to make the trip more meaningful. Just like you would study your holiday destination to make the most out of the trip.
As I say all this, I am not saying Stiles’ travelogue is especially well-written. He is not a literary genius painting a landscape with words. J.R.R. Tolkien, he is not.
In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien describes Middle-Earth in ways that rouses the reader’s imagination. The magic is not just from the plot. The world Tolkien imagines is a world that pulls readers in. We want to visit Middle-Earth. Middle-Earth is amazing because of Tolkien.
That is not true for today’s book. Going Places with God attracts readers to the lands of the Bible. But the lands of the Bible are not amazing because of Wayne Stiles. It’s amazing because of God. For God set his story onto this land.
For nearly two decades, people around the world flock to New Zealand to see the places where the Lord of the Rings: the Movie was shot. I am one of them.
For more than two thousand years, many more people travel to the Holy Land to see the places where Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, Paul and John walked. In Bethlehem, Christ was born. He walked on the Sea of Galilee. In Jerusalem, the people welcomed him, listened to him, judged him and crucified him. On the third day, Jesus rose again and left an empty tomb.
I share one last quote from Wayne Stiles:
God used these places to mold the lives of His people in the biblical narrative. And if you will allow Him, He can use it to change your life as well. Begin to recognize that all the places God takes you—many of them painful—have nothing but His glory and your best interests in mind.
The irony of going places with God is that the One who travels with us is also our destination. He takes us to these places to give us more of Himself.
“Going Places with God” is a book that will prompt you to consider a trip to the Holy Land. It’s a book you can bring on that trip as you travel. And even if you are not traveling, even if there is no possibility of going to the Holy Land yourself, which is a fact for more people than not, you will appreciate what God has done through these lands and ultimately, what God has done and is doing and will do for you. Let your devotion and praise respond to who he is.
This is a Reading and Readers review of “Going Places with God: A Devotional Journey through the Lands of the Bible” by Wayne Stiles. 176 pages, published by Regal in December 2006. Available for USD8.99 in Amazon Kindle and free through Faithlife in June and only June.
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