President Barack Obama approached the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington this morning with a mixture of humor and humility, some insight into what he was thinking as he asked for another chance to look out upon that crowd at his second inaugural ceremony at the Capitol and a lament about the real Washington to which he returns after church today.
Following an introduction of the president, Obama joked: “I thought he was going to talk about my gray hair… It is true that my daughters are gorgeous. That’s because my wife is gorgeous. And my goal is to improve my gene pool.”
He spoke of faith and conviction and spoke of the Bibles on which he had sworn his oaths of office. He spoke of his friend and director of the Faith-Based Office, that office a carry-over from the administration of George W. Bush. The current director, Joshua DuBois, sends Obama a daily meditation via e-mail, a “snippet of Scripture for me to reflect on.”
“Recently I had occasion to reflect on the power of faith,” Obama said. “A few weeks ago, during the inauguration, I was blessed to place my hand on the Bibles of two great Americans, two men whose faith still echoes today. One was the Bible owned by President Abraham Lincoln, and the other, the Bible owned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As I prepared to take the sacred oath, I thought about these two men, and I thought of how, in times of joy and pain and uncertainty, they turned to their Bibles to seek the wisdom of God’s word — and thought of how, for as long as we’ve been a nation, so many of our leaders, our Presidents, and our preachers, our legislators and our jurists have done the same. Each one faced their own challenges; each one finding in Scripture their own lessons from the Lord. ‘
After his ceremonial inauguration outside the Capitol on Jan. 21, the second-term president paused, explaining that he wanted to take another look at a scene on the national mall that he wouldn’t see again.
“As I was looking out on the crowd during the inauguration I thought of Dr. King,” Obama said today. “We often think of him standing tall in front of the endless crowds, stirring the nation’s conscience with a bellowing voice and a mighty dream. But I also thought of his doubts and his fears, for those moments came as well — the lonely moments when he was left to confront the presence of long-festering injustice and undisguised hate; imagined the darkness and the doubt that must have surrounded him when he was in that Birmingham jail, and the anger that surely rose up in him the night his house was bombed with his wife and child inside, and the grief that shook him as he eulogized those four precious girls taken from this Earth as they gathered in a house of God.”
“And I was reminded that, yes, Dr. King was a man of audacious hope and a man of relentless optimism. But he was always — he was also a man occasionally brought to his knees in fear and in doubt and in helplessness. And in those moments, we know that he retreated alone to a quiet space so he could reflect and he could pray and he could grow his faith.”
“We know Lincoln had such moments as well,” the president said. “To see this country torn apart, to see his fellow citizens waging a ferocious war that pitted brother against brother, family against family — that was as heavy a burden as any president will ever have to bear.”
“Today, the divisions in this country are, thankfully, not as deep or destructive as when Lincoln led, but they are real,” he said. “The differences in how we hope to move our nation forward are less pronounced than when King marched, but they do exist. ”
Thinking, finally, of that Capitol where he pledged to carry out a second term as president, Obama said this, again eliciting some laughter:
“I have to say this is now our fifth prayer breakfast and it is always just a wonderful event. But I do worry sometimes that as soon as we leave the prayer breakfast, everything we’ve been talking about the whole time at the prayer breakfast seems to be forgotten — on the same day of the prayer breakfast. I mean, you’d like to think that the shelf life wasn’t so short. But I go back to the Oval Office and I start watching the cable news networks and it’s like we didn’t pray.”
His hope, he said, is that that humility “carries over every day.”