NEW ORLEANS (BP) — Three Southern Baptist leaders were recognized by the Israel Ministry of Tourism with a Faithful Ambassador Award June 18 for their support of Christian tourism.
Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, was honored at a “Celebrate Israel” breakfast, along with Jack Graham, senior pastor of the Dallas-area Prestonwood Baptist Church; and O.S. Hawkins, president of GuideStone Financial Resources.
Page, in prayer, thanked God that Southern Baptists can come alongside Israel as a partner.
“Lord, we believe strongly that You have called us to be a people who support the nation of Israel,” Page said, “who support Your call for that land to be strong, to be a blessing to the nations.”
Haim Gutin, Israel commissioner for North and South America, presented the awards on behalf of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, citing significant growth in Christian tourism in Israel in the past few years “beyond our wildest dreams.” He announced a ribbon-cutting ceremony later in the morning for an Israel booth in the exhibit hall at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center prior to the June 19-20 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting.
Hawkins, in the keynote address, recalled his first trip to Israel in the 1970s when, after the Six-Day War, he walked out onto the tarmac of the old airport and looked out at the Israeli soldiers circling the plane.
“I felt like I had just come home,” Hawkins said. “There was something about that particular experience.”
As to why he has made return trips to Israel, Hawkins said he and his wife Susie travel there for four reasons — personal, practical, political and prophetic.
“I like Israel breakfasts,” Hawkins quipped in talking about his personal reasons for visiting Israel.
More so, Hawkins said his own spiritual development and devotional life have been expanded by walking the streets of the old city in Jerusalem, sailing on the Sea of Galilee and standing on the Mount of Olives.
Taking to heart Psalm 48:12, which says in part, “to walk around Zion … that you might tell it to the next generation,'” Hawkins said he believes he is stronger in the telling of it because of his firsthand experience.
“Some of my profound memories are there,” he said.
Hawkins said he has witnessed practical reasons to continue taking people to Israel.
“It bound me to my people like nothing else; it built leadership in my church like nothing else; it transformed the lives of our people like nothing else,” Hawkins said, referencing core relationships he has built with leaders and others in the churches he has pastored.
Politically, Hawkins said, he has a strong affinity for the Middle East.
“I believe in democracy and we all know that Israel is really the only real democracy in the Middle East and deserves our support,” Hawkins said.
Prophecy was the final reason Hawkins said he believes in traveling to Israel.
“God not only has a purpose for that particular place, but He also has a purpose for that peculiar people we call the Jews …,” Hawkins said. “Long ago Moses predicted the Lord will scatter you among the nations and you will find no resting place. In the ghettos of Warsaw to the pogroms all through Eastern Europe, to Hitler’s ovens, they have known no resting place.”
During a recent trip to the Garden of Gethsemane, Hawkins said, he looked at the ground and saw “diamonds” of dew all over a blade of grass. In that moment, he said an obscure verse he had memorized as a teenager came to mind: an Old Testament promise in Hosea 14:5, “I will be like the dew to my people.”
Dew, Hawkins said, does not come from the sky or the grounds, but instead is formed under the right conditions by condensation.
“Conditions have never been more right to stand by our Israeli friends in support of saving Israel,” Hawkins said. “And conditions have never been more right for us to know how to do it. And one of the very best [ways] that we as Christians and pastors can do that is to get people together and take them … to the land of Israel and walk about Zion, count her towers [and] consider her ramparts that we too can tell it to the next generation.”
Graham, in delivering the benediction, prayed for the peace of Jerusalem, drawing from Psalm 122. “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May those who love you be secure,'” he said.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, the newspaper of the Florida Baptist State Convention.