The Common Good

Conversation on Prayer with President Obama

Sojomail - February 23, 2012


"The ashes are an invitation, opening the door for us to the practices of Lent, a first step, a reminder of our mortality and God's creative power. We take that invitation and that core truth out into places where people really need that.” - Rev. Emily Mellott of Calvary Church in Lombard, Ill., joining more than 70 Episcopal parishes in 18 states to bring Ash Wednesday to the streets by offering the Christian sign of repentance to anyone who seeks it at train stations, coffee shops, and street corners. (Source: USA Today)

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Conversation on Prayer with President Obama

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Unless it’s Justin Bieber I don’t get star-struck, but I have to admit, it was pretty cool to meet President Barack Obama earlier this month. During his visit to Seattle on the weekend of February 16, I had the opportunity and privilege to attend one of the events he was speaking at. Specifically, it was an event at Boeing Everett to celebrate the work of American workers, Boeing, and the culmination of the work of the Dreamliner 787.

Light to the World
As you know, I don’t run in these circles. Sitting in a special section with dignitaries and politicians including mayors, various council members, business bigwigs, and the Washington governor was awkward to say the least. How I got invited to this event is a little unclear, but over the past couple years, I’ve been building relationships with the White House via their Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. But it’s also from a commitment – as a Christian, a pastor, and a leader – to be a light to the World and not just merely light to the Light. Translation: As we serve and love the church, we must also look outward and engage the larger culture. Folks notice and, when opportunities arise, they sometimes ask for input and involvement or merely your presence, and that’s what happened.

Because of this theology and ecclesiology to be a light to the world, I’ve tried to obviously love and serve my church but to also engage both local issues and national issues – including the messy business of politics.

Why Politics Matter
I care about politics not because I obsess over politics. Rather, politics is important to me because it involves policies, and policies, ultimately, impact people. We have no choice: we must be engaged in our civic responsibilities and affairs.

I am a staunch independent when it comes to political parties and urge Christians to not be played, swayed, and seduced by the powers that be. For this reason, I’ve tried to urge others to be cautious of the politicization and manipulation of Jesus, Christians, and religion.

But back to the story.

After the larger event to feature the Dreamliner 787 and listen to President Obama’s speech, a small group of folks were invited to a more intimate gathering (more like meet and greet) with the president. I was told I was going to be invited but I had no idea what to expect.

A Conversation About Prayer
In my mind, I had envisioned the opportunity to share some convictions of my heart that would dramatically impact President Obama and alter the trajectory of his leadership, presidency, and country. Go big or go home, right?

Unfortunately, the opportunity for a long conversation wasn’t to be. Had I had that opportunity, I was hoping to talk policies, justice, human dignity, womb to tomb, Linsanity, family, marriage, compare pictures of our kids, and challenge him to a one-on-one basketball game.

Rather, it was a few minutes among a small group. When folks were introduced at this smaller gathering, they all had “important” titles. I was simply introduced by “Eugene Cho” and I’m certain many were asking, “Who is this and why is he here?” In fact, President Obama, himself, had a puzzled look as he said, “Hello Eugene.” So, I had to introduce myself to him and explain to him that I was a pastor here in Seattle. We chit-chatted briefly about stuff, but there is something I very specifically remember, and I don’t know if I’ll ever forget this portion of our conversation.

I shared with President Obama that I occasionally but regularly prayed for him and this is how he responded:

“Thank you, Eugene. I really appreciate that. Can you also please pray for my wife and children? Pray for their protection.”

His demeanor changed. Perhaps, this is just me. Perhaps I’m reading and analyzing too much into all the non-verbal cues but then again, I’m a pastor and, after 21 years of doing ministry, you develop a “pastoral sense.” I genuinely sensed his gratitude for prayer and his request for prayer for his family.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about our short conversation – and a sense of the burden and weight of his job and the ‘calling’ of the presidency. In many ways, we ought to commend the courage of all those who step into leadership – on any level – including the highest level. We can criticize all we want about our current presidential candidates, but we must commend them for their courage to place themselves in such vulnerable positions.

On a more micro level, I too have experienced harsh pushbacks and criticism in my leadership as a pastor. Several years ago because of a controversial blog post I wrote (and a subsequent public spat with a cultural figure in Seattle), we had a rock thrown into our church building, phone call threats to my home, and anonymous hate email. It was a scary time and, after assessing the potential danger to my family, I called the police to explain and seek advice, deleted our home phone line, and removed all pictures and names of our kids from the interwebs.

Now, imagine that. Multiply that 100,000,000 and then, consider that every day. Imagine this not just for yourself but for your spouse and for your children.

You see, it doesn’t matter what your political leanings, affiliations, and affections may be. I’m always amazed by those who so often quote 1 Timothy 2:1-4 as an encouragement to pray for our leaders, but we hesitate when it’s someone we disagree with and instead start quoting Psalm 109:8.

“May his days be few; and may another seize his position.”

This of course was the recent (and nebulous) encouragement of Kansas House Speaker Michael O’Neal to his supporters. As you can imagine, a great deal of brouhaha erupted because that verse (if you read onto the next verse) is literally about “may his days be few.” It’s about death…

And then there are those absolutely crazy stories like that of Pastor Wiley Drake, who shared and continues to share very publicly that he is praying for the death of the president of the United States. Wow. Dude…

An Endorsement for Prayer
This isn’t an endorsement for President Obama or a political party. As an active pastor of a congregation, I believe it unwise to make political endorsements, but rather, I’ll talk about issues – particularly from the framework of my Christian faith.

However, I am making an endorsement. It is an endorsement for prayer and, specifically, prayer for President Obama, First Lady Michelle, and his daughters – Malia and Sasha.

As we shook hands and shared this brief conversation, I was reminded that, despite President Obama being arguably “the most powerful man in the world,” beneath it all was simply another broken and fallen man with doubts and fears – just like me and all of us. All in desperate need of the grace of God. All in need of the comfort and strength through prayer. Our brief conversation reminded me of the words I heard from President Obama himself when I attended the 2011 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C.:

“And like all of us, my faith journey has had its twists and turns. It hasn’t always been a straight line. I have thanked God for the joys of parenthood and Michelle’s willingness to put up with me. In the wake of failures and disappointments, I’ve questioned what God had in store for me and have been reminded that God’s plans for us may not always match our own short-sighted desires.

And let me tell you, these past two years, they have deepened my faith. The presidency has a funny way of making a person feel the need to pray. Abe Lincoln said, as many of you know, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’”

Agree or disagree. Like or dislike. Republican or Democrat. Tea or Coffee Party. It doesn’t matter. Lift a prayer for President Obama and his family. Lift a prayer for this fellow brother-in-Christ. Pray for strength, conviction, and courage. Pray for safety and peace.

Eugene Cho is the founder and lead pastor of Quest Church in Seattle and the executive director of Q Cafe. You can follow him via his blog, Twitter, or Facebook page.

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