I remember the day clearly. It was the heat of the 2008 presidential campaign, and I was working as the religious outreach director for U.S. Senator Barack Obama. I had been on Obama’s staff for a few years, and knew him pretty well. My job at the time was to talk with people of faith across the country about why this young senator should be president.
But outside of my professional role, I also prayed for Obama, frequently and alone. I’d pray for his family, and his sense of peace. I’d find a passage of scripture that matched up with whatever problem he was facing that day, and I’d whisper it quietly to myself, asking God to protect him, be with him in all of the challenges that he faced. I had been an associate pastor at a small church during college, and my Christian faith was, and is, the motivating force of my life. So I prayed.
One morning in the middle of this quiet ritual–reading and prayer–I felt a sense of interruption. Something in my spirit suggested to me that instead of praying for Obama, perhaps I should pray with him. Just reach out to him, and share a word of encouragement. A bit of scripture, a prayer, something to help him get through his day.
I had Senator Obama’s personal email, but knew to only use it in case of emergencies. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, but was pretty sure that this didn’t constitute an emergency. But the feeling still gnawed at me: that he needed some support, beyond Secret Service protection and policy guidance and political advisors. That he needed some folks who were thinking about his soul.
And so I wrote a short email–based in the 23rd Psalm, and with another excerpt from an offbeat poem that I loved–and sent it to his personal BlackBerry. I included a cover note, something about how I hoped the message would be helpful to him. I was a nervous wreck after sending and did not expect a reply.
But less than 5 minutes later, I got one. It was a brief note, all I needed: Senator Obama said that my message was exactly what he had been looking for, and he'd appreciate it if I kept it up each day. So I did.
More than five years later, the young senator I worked for is now president of the United States, and I have accumulated thousands of these devotionals. President Obama remarked recently that these meditations “meant the world” to him, and it has been the honor of a lifetime to prepare and send them each day.
I, like the president, am a history buff, and a student of blues and jazz, so in addition to Christian scriptures, these meditations have included lessons from Abraham Lincoln and Nina Simone, Eleanor Roosevelt and Johnny Cash. But the goal of all of them is clear: to help the President deepen his faith, and live a life of greater peace and joy every day.
I decided to leave the White House earlier this year, and with the president’s permission I selected the best of these morning messages and assembled them into a book. The President’s Devotional: The Daily Readings that Inspired President Obama will be released on October 22, a labor of love that started on that nervous morning, many years ago. My hope is that the same passages that have been helpful to the president will provide some measure of encouragement for others as well, from single parents trying to make ends meet, to heads of organizations and political leaders as well.
In addition to 365 daily devotionals, The President’s Devotional includes some longer reflections on faith in politics and in my own life. I explore how faith intersected with difficult situations in the White House, from race in America to the Newtown massacre, and how President Obama helped me through some highs and lows in my life, including my engagement to be married and the loss of my father. It’s a side of our president that not many people get to see, but one that I think folks should know.
But at the end of the day, this book isn't about President Obama, and it's certainly not about me. It's about the common principles and desires that bind us together: Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, folks from all backgrounds and walks of life. A desire for meaning. A desire to love others well, and be loved in return. A search for peace of mind, in this increasingly frantic world. These are the issues that The President's Devotional speaks to. I hope reading the book will be a blessing to others, as it has been to the president, and to me.