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Prayer with the president: An excerpt from ‘Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk’

Obama praying
President Barack Obama closes his eyes as a prayer is offered at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Feb. 6, 2014

Some years ago, I met President Obama while he was visiting Seattle. In my mind, I had envisioned the opportunity to share some heartfelt convictions that would dramatically impact President Obama and alter the trajectory of his leadership, presidency, and country. Go big or go home, right? 

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

However, the meeting was a few minutes in a small group. When folks were introduced at this smaller gathering, they all had “important” titles. I was simply introduced as “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 introduced myself to him and explained that I was a pastor in Seattle and was also involved with humanitarian work through One Day’s Wages. We chit-chatted briefly about stuff, but there is something I remember specifically, and I doubt I’ll ever forget this portion of our conversation—even and especially if I disagree with him on certain policies.

I shared with President Obama that I occasionally but regularly prayed for him, and he responded, “Thank you, Pastor Eugene. I really appreciate that. Can you also please pray for my wife and children? Pray for their protection.”

His demeanor changed. Perhaps I overanalyzed all the nonverbal cues, but then again, I’m a pastor and after (then) twenty-one years of doing ministry, you develop a “pastoral sense.” I genuinely sensed his gratitude for prayer and his request for prayer for his family.

Even now, I vividly remember that short conversation along with 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, and particularly at times of crisis, like the coronavirus pandemic. We can criticize them and their decisions, but we ought to commend them also for their courage to place themselves in such vulnerable positions.

Prayer for others is a great antidote to mean-spirited hearts. It doesn’t matter what your political leanings, affiliations, and affections may be. We so often quote 1 Timothy 2:1–4 as an encouragement to pray for our leaders but yet hesitate or neglect those instructions when it’s someone we disagree with. Sadly, some might start quoting Psalm 109:8 instead:

May his days be few; and let another take his office. (KJV) 

This was the inappropriate encouragement of Republican Senator David Perdue of Georgia at a conservative Christian event regarding President Obama. As you can imagine, a great deal of brouhaha erupted because that verse is literally about “may his days be few”… as in death. And then there are those ridiculous and dangerous stories like that of Pastor Wiley Drake, who shared very publicly that he was praying for the death of President Obama.

As the president and I shook hands and shared this brief conversation, I was reminded that despite his 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. All of us are in desperate need of the grace of God. We’re all in need of the comfort and strength that come through prayer. Our brief conversation reminded me of the words I had heard from President Obama himself when I attended the 2011 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC:

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 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.” 

It’s because of that experience, along with the wisdom and example of James, that I made a commitment to pray regularly for the president of this country. Whoever it may be. Agree or disagree. Like or dislike. Republican or Democrat. Tea Party or Coffee Party.

And so, I pray for President Trump almost every day. If I’m honest, it’s often challenging, but I am committed to being respectful of him. I pray for physical protection for him and his family. For wisdom and for repentance too, because all leaders need both. I pray for a deeper sense of compassion—especially for the vulnerable—in our country and around the world. I pray for his well-being, for his marriage and family. I pray for strength, conviction, and courage. I pray foremost that he would know Jesus in a deep, profound way that alters his outlook on self, society, and life. I pray for his commitment to honor God in his life and through his leadership.

Why does prayer matter? It reminds us that we desperately need God in our lives but, additionally, that we’re connected to one another. In short, prayer is the ultimate antidote to our propensity to dehumanize and vilify others. 

From the book Thou Shalt Not be a Jerk by Eugene Cho, c. 2020. Used with permission by David C Cook. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.

Read the Denison Forum review of Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk.

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