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February 18th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

Facing death, a top pastor rethinks what it means to be Christian

Editor's Note: The short film accompanying this story, called "My Garden," comes from EdsStory.com. CNN.com is premiering the latest installment in the "Ed's Story" series.

By Dan Merica, CNN

Washington (CNN) – Ed Dobson is not afraid of dying. It’s the getting there that really scares him.

A former pastor, onetime Christian Right operative and an icon among religious leaders, Dobson has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. When he was diagnosed, doctors gave him 3 to 5 years to live.

That was 11 years ago.

“I am a tad happy to be talking to you right now,” joked Dobson, whose voice has deteriorated since his preaching days, in a phone interview. Speaking with him feels like being exposed to a brief moment of clarity. He speaks slowly, but with an understated confidence and authority.

As pastor at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a position he held for 18 years, Dobson would regularly preach to 5,000 people or more on Sundays. Back then, Dobson said he looked at himself as a man filled with lessons, proverbs and, most of all, answers.

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After retirement six years ago, the massive crowds went away.

“I went from 100 miles an hour to zero miles an hour overnight,” Dobson said. “That was a shock to my system.”

Dobson says the answers vanished with the crowds.

“I know that sounds a bit lame,” he said. “I know that that I should have all the answers, but the truth is, the more I live, the fewer answers I have.”

And yet the people Dobson comes in contact with – those who call him dad, husband and friend, or those who have read one of his 12 books and watched his short films, don’t agree with that assessment. To them, the last six years of Dobson’s life have led to a remarkable ability to put life into context. To them, Dobson is a man filled with lessons.

From 5,000 to 1

In the 1980s, Dobson rose to prominence as an executive at the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell's evangelical political organization, which had influence with the Ronald Reagan White House. Dobson’s rise continued when he accepted the pastorate at Calvary Church in 1987. He cut a national profile, with Moody Bible Institute naming him “Pastor of the Year” in 1993.

After being diagnosed with ALS, Dobson suddenly felt unsure of himself. At times, he said, he didn't want to get out of bed. After years of intense Bible study, Dobson said this is not how he thought he would react to news of his own mortality.

“I thought that if I knew I was going to die, I would really read the Bible and if I really was going to die, I would really pray,” Dobson said. “I found the opposite to be true. I could barely read the Bible and I had great difficulty praying. You get so overwhelmed with your circumstances, you lose perspective.”

Eventually, Dobson regained perspective. But feelings of listlessness led him to take his preaching to a more personal level. He now meets with congregants one-on-one. Sitting with them in their homes or offices, Dobson provides whatever help he can. “Most of the people I meet with have ALS and basically I listen," he said.

“When I meet with someone and look into their eyes, it is like I am looking into their soul,” Dobson said. “We are both broken, we are both on the journey and we are both fellow pilgrims.”

Going from 5,000 congregants to one at a time was a big change for Dobson, forcing him to reevaluate his job as a pastor. “I am trying to learn that one-on-one is just as important as speaking to thousands,” he said. “I reemphasize – I am trying to learn that.”

During his one-on-one meetings, Dobson says he remembers Adam and Eve being charged by God to work the Garden of Eden. For years Dobson’s garden was Calvary Church – the baptisms, weddings, the Sunday preaching.

“Whether it is preaching to 5000 or meeting one on one, I am trying to take care of the garden,” he said.

The wind knocked out

One way Dobson strove to tend the garden is by writing a book about dealing with serious illness. In 2007, he wrote “Prayers and Promises When Facing a Life-Threatening Illness.”

Dobson’s son Daniel read the book while deployed in Iraq. After returning home, Daniel made it his mission to turn the book’s stories into videos.

He pitched the idea to Steve Carr, the executive director of a faith-focused production company called Flannel. “When I met Ed, when he came to our office, something really spoke to me,” Carr said. “Not too long before that, I had been diagnosed with Leukemia.”

“I thought that this guy, he has been where I am right now and he has somehow mastered it,” Carr said.

So far, Flannel has released five Dobson films, available through the company's website. There are plans for two more. Though the films range in topic, from loss and forgiveness to healing and growth, all are centered on lessons Dobson learned through his battle with ALS. The videos toe the line between a dark look at a dying man's life and an uplifting glimpse at someone who exudes clarity.

"My Garden," the most recent title in the series, centers on Ed’s struggle to deal with ending his preaching career.

Dobson talks about the films as if they are his swan song, his last words of encouragement to a group of supporters he has inspired for decades.

“My desire is that people who have had the air knocked out of them, whether divorce or losing a loved one or illness, that they will get a sense of hope by watching the films,” he said.

Surviving (with help)

The series’ first short film opens with Dobson explaining what it was like to be told he had ALS. After lying in bed, Dobson gets in the shower, brushes his teeth and starts the day. Even he would admit, however, it is not that easy.

Dobson has lost much of the function in his hands and is seen struggling to brush his teeth, his frail body using two hands on the small brush. Though he is able to do a lot, including drive, Dobson wouldn’t be able to make it on his own, a fact he is keenly aware of when about when describing his wife, Lorna.

“She is my right hand, my left hand, my left foot, my right foot, my heart and my brain,” Dobson said. “Without her, it would be impossible to go on.”

Standing in the kitchen in one video, Lorna helps puts Ed’s belt and gloves on. The two don’t speak on camera, but their love is obvious.

“Our love has grown each year of marriage,” Lorna said. “I didn’t want to just wither in the sorrow of how our life was changing. It took a while to get used to what our life was going to be like but I realized that I needed to be more available to him.”

Dobson says he is also more available to her.

“I am no longer a preacher,” said Dobson. “Today, I would say I am a Jesus follower. Period.”

Lorna said she continues to learn from her husband. Throughout their life together, she said she learned by being in church with him, by raising three kids together and by loving one another.

The last 11 years, however, their love has changed. Dobson's illness has taught her to focus on the important things, she said, primarily their kids and five grandkids.

After tending the garden for decades, Dobson is now being tended himself, largely by Lorna. “ALS forced me into a situation where I grew in understanding of what it means to obey Jesus,” Dobson said in the latest film.

“It took me quite a while to find an alternative purpose," he said. "But the good news is out there – there is a purpose for everyone.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Death • United States

soundoff (3,195 Responses)
  1. saywhat

    Why do people who claim to not believe in anything comment in the Belief blog? Instead, go to the Science page and there you will find all answers, or at least a few answers to the few questions that man can answer with any certainty that usually lead to more questions that we can't yet answer that should eventually lead you in humility back to the Belief page with the right questions. This man spent a career with these questions and the answer is: follow Christ. I am thankful for his testimony.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Grayson

      because this was front page news and many people click out of curiosity. also we non-believers always like a chance to knock religious nut jobs (no offense) down a few notches

      February 19, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      I do not believe in the Belief Blog.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • saywhat

      To Grayson:
      this man's message was that he was not religious, he said "a follower of Christ, period". And it is way overdue for front page news.

      To Joy of Sin:
      when you reduce your critics to sarcasm, they become like noisy drums – loud and empty.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • LookNow

      Because when republican evangelical right wing nuts want to high jack religion like the muslims have done, they must be watched and opposed.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Uhhh

      Looknow: "Because when republican evangelical right wing nuts want to high jack religion like the muslims have done..."

      That statement makes no sense. "Republican evangelical right wing nuts" is ONE group of followers of Christianity. "Muslims" is the ENTIRE community of Islam followers. Did you mean RADICAL Muslims? I know ragging on the Muslims is the easy and safe thing to do nowadays, but are you one of those people who just refuse to believe there are moderate Muslims? Muslims are hiding under your bed! Boo! Besides, ALL religions are a form of hijacking of the free mind.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Buzzer

      And you "get off" on this? Pretty pathetic if this "motivates" you.

      February 19, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • Buzzer

      uhh: thank goodness most people of faith don't confuse "religion" with what it means to be a person of faith...

      February 19, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  2. Justin

    I don't get why religion articles are always on the front page of CNN.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • jim atmadison

      Americans are much more likely to have attended their church in the last month than a political party meeting, rally or similar event.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Uhhh

      Because they are guaranteed to bring in clicks and eyeballs? Lots and lots of eyeballs, including mine.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  3. Tom Hagen

    Pastor DOBSON...Convert to THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH...THE CHURCH OF PETER on direct command from Jesus

    Pastor Dobson...Jesus said:

    "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it," (Matt. 16:18).

    Pastor DOBSON...that's THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH...the ROMAN EMPIRE converted...THE CHURCH has survived the MIDDLE AGES, THE PLAGUE, HITLER, and now the Moderns...with their Glitzy MEGA-CHURCHES...

    A preacher gets sick and a church ends...SAD!

    Pastor Dobson...CONVERT before you go away!

    February 19, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • My Take

      The Catholic Church is the biggest Mega Church. The Catholic Church has caused much evil throughout history. The Cathoilic Church needs to die.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Tom Hagen

      A wish from a person with the power of newly-born, cute, little BUNNY...the CHURCH has survived the ROMANS, THE MIDDLE AGES, HITLER, and now the MODERNS

      Have you been to a CATHOLIC CHURCH much?

      February 19, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • longtooth

      I'd love to see your face when you try to find the Pearly Gates.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • My Take

      The Catholoc Church was collaborating with Hitler you idiot. The Catholoic Church is in bed with the devil.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • N&W 1000

      1. IF that is true, then what happened when Peter DENIED Jesus THREE times during the crucifixion? Did the gates of Hell prevail?
      2. Peter NEVER claimed the office Rome gives him. He said he was a pillar, and an Apostle.
      3. The Book of Acts identifies the Apostle James as the leader of the early church.
      4. Peter was the Apostle to the JEWS, not the gentiles.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Tom Hagen

      Yeah...SURE!

      That's the HISTORY you've been told!

      February 19, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Tom Hagen

      We can go back and forth on THE CHURCH!

      Without THE CHURCH and the WARRIORS it has sent forth...YOU WOULD BE GETTING ON YOUR PRAYER RUG 5 TIMES TODAY.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • My Take

      The Catholic Church is guilty of somanny sins. Child molestation, anti semitism, standing in the way of science, burning people at the stake and the list goes on. The Catholic Church is a bastion of evil.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  4. Janelle

    I'm agnostic, but I'm not above finding wisdom in the faith of others, particularly those who can live so gracefully while fast-approaching an awful death.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  5. urownexperience

    All Christians understand in there heart of hearts that what they have been taught to believe is a fairytale.

    "Never believe anything unless you can prove it true for yourself." – Buddha.

    "The religion of the future is Buddhism." – Albert Einstein:

    February 19, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Vicster

      Speaks volumes of your character, or lack thereof that you would comment on this story just to spew your own self-centered ignorant and hypocritical assumptions about what is in other people's hearts. Please go crawl back into yon stupid tree from which you fell hard.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Tom Hagen

      This existence of ours is transient as AUTUMN CLOUDS
      To watch the birth and death of beings is like watching the movements of a Dance
      Your life is like a flash of lightning in the sky
      RUSHING by like a torrent down a steep mountain

      THE BUDDHA

      February 19, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • PJ

      Read "The Reason for God" by Timothy Keller and I think you'll see what can be proved. People who attack Christianity usually haven't studied God's words nor researched the "proof" that Christ isn't a "fairy tale" – this book will help you to see more clearly the truth before it's too late.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  6. LookNow

    Christian Right operative...moral majority...seems like this guy was working for the Devil at one time. Now his drivel means nothing since he really never believed. But all things that are born must die. What happens in between is what counts and will be judged on. Forgiveness does not mean erasure. Lucky for him the true nature of the Divine is more forgiving that he ever showed. Modern day Christianity is way off the mark.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • sfdgsdfg

      Someone didn't read (or understand) the article.

      February 19, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  7. Joshua Weersma

    A truly inspirational man to my life. I have this man to thank for my teachings as a young man and still have the opportunity to listen to him today. Thank you, you inspired my life as a follower of god.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • R. Diane

      AMEN and AMEN!!

      February 19, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • LookNow

      Inspiring hatred and intolerance...should have become a muslim man.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Uhhh

      Looknow: just accept the fact that there are Christian fanatics just like there are Muslims ones. Muslim fanatics may be scary to us today, but they are basically backward and bearded cave dwellers with no real power or significant support. On the other hand, Christian fanatics have (and have had) access to the most powerful office and nuclear-armed military in the world. They work hard to start a third world war in the Middle East to trigger the apocalypse and the second coming of their imaginary friend in the sky. Who do you think we all should be more afraid of?

      February 19, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  8. sandi

    My son has als and it is a horrible disease to have. No one knows the cause and there's no cure. They are thinking it may be from head trauma but no one knows for sure. I hate it. I have to sit back and watch him slowly die and the struggle he has with it. He can barely use his hands and struggles to walk and will be in a wheelchair soon. It will affect his breathing and he will need a tube inserted to help him breath. Most patients end up dieing from respiratory failure. I heard of it and really never knerw what it was until he was diagnosied with it in September. I struggle because he is my son and am having a hard time dealing with it. People at church and friends are praying for us and I believe that helps me gey through it. So, to those of you who have smart ass comments about it, look it up and you will see what this man is going through. It's something that can't be explained. You almost need to know someone with it to understand.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • R. Diane

      Good words Sandi...may God comfort and uphold you as you walk this path....gentle hugs

      February 19, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      sandi, this is not the place for your story. Everyone is anonymous and you are most likely a troll. If you are not, we will never know. If you are telling the truth, the point is not the disease. It is the A-h0le who has it. You don't want to start swapping als stories here I a.s.sure you.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  9. Shane

    I remember what a hateful organization the Moral Majority was and how sinister Jerry Falwell was. Given that this man has spent much of life promoting intolerance and narrow Christian objective, it's hard to feel the tears on this one.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • jim atmadison

      Agreed. Some of his fellow religious hate-mongers from that period have repented from their vile acts. I kept reading and hoping that it would be the case with Mr Dobson.

      Until he does, I have grave concern for him.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • LookNow

      The Devil often goes to Church and sits in the front. Trying to get what will never be his. The Moral Majority was a deceitful and hateful organization. Jesus would reject their brand of Christianity.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Dagaz

      Our ability to empathize with others is not contingent upon our differences, but upon our likeness. I share very little with Dobson's faith and politics yet wish him the best and hope he has a peaceful passing.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Sue

      Every single person on this earth has done damage to another person or themselves. This man recognizes it and has come forward to confess it. Most of us will shift through life pointing out the sin & mistakes of others, while ignoring our own mistakes. He's a changed man and it takes courage to admit you were wrong. Its why Jesus said take the log out of your eye, we're all guilty of not being perfect.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  10. Terri

    Get fast and natural hemorrhoid relief using an all natural supplement that offers fast hemorrhoid relief. Get Hem-eez and get fast relief at http://www.hem-eez.com Buy 3 get 1 free! Hem-eez gave me GREAT relief of my painful hemorrhoids. Each order comes with a 90 day money back guarantee!

    February 19, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      Do I have to pay for the shipping?

      February 19, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • longtooth

      Gosh, thanks, Terri ! BTW, this was a great forum to make a sales pitch!

      February 19, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  11. JennyTX

    The only people who know what happens after we die are dead people. Until then, just be the best person you can be. Be kind to everyone.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • LookNow

      Some already know. But its a very personal affair. I have no doubts. I've know a few of mine. It is easier for a rich and modern evangelical Christian man to go through the eye of a needle than get into heaven. But it does not matter if the believe or know, they still must go through with it.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  12. Joy of Sin

    Meaning of "Faith":

    1.Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
    2.Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  13. Tom Hagen

    Pastor Dobson...convert to Catholicism!

    In THE CHURCH you will find that comfort of ONE MESSAGE delivered across EARTH to poor people to stricken people to ALL PEOPLE...without the empty GLITZ of American Mega-Churches!

    Paster Dobson...start attending your nearest CATHOLIC CHURCH...You'll see what I mean!

    It isn't about YOU preaching to 5000. It's about the 5000 and now the 1 hearing and trying to live THE WORD!

    THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IS THE GREATEST FORCE OF GOOD ON EARTH!

    February 19, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      Yes, you will still have time to r.a.p.e some little boys before you kick the bucket!

      February 19, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • jim atmadison

      Oh, puuhhleeeze.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Tom Hagen

      Attacks from MODERNS...THE CHURCH survived the ROMANS, HITLER and the MIDDLE AGES...compared to that...the ATTACKS of YOU TWO have the strength of newly-born cute, little BUNNY

      February 19, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • LookNow

      It doesn't matter the size or type of church but that they know that the church exists to service the people and not the people the church or the pastor. A fact lost to the Catholics and evangelicals.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  14. Maya

    Dobson is an evil slug. He deserved worse than this for all the ignorance he has spread.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • ouch

      funny the hate from people who dont believe in god.............how can u hate what u dont believe in?

      February 19, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • jim atmadison

      As a Christian, I agree with Maya, ouch. The Moral Majority was neither, but its slim membership was much closer to being a majority than it ever was to being moral.

      It was a politico-religious hate group, and it still exists in the teachings of most of the religious right of all faiths, particularly the rightwing 'fundamentalist' elements of Christianity and Islam.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Bizarre

      @ouch,

      Funny that you can post without a fully-functioning brain. Non-believers do not hate any god(s)... it's the nonsensical behavior and edicts put forth by believers that rankles.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • R. Diane

      Glad there is not a shred of truth in your post....God can take care of that miserable spirit ...

      February 19, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  15. KnowsMore

    BAN SCIENCE AND TRUST GOD

    February 19, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • armani sim

      haha are you kidding me? ban science,..well don't use your computer, cars don't use anything that science made. Go and live in a church or a rock fool

      February 19, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Grayson

      Get out. Seriously. You need to leave.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Nayan

      Ban science? as a scientist who has done research in the public and private sector, I have to say you are a moron. Ban science? really how about this...when you have a terminal disease or anything wrong with you, dont take medicine just sit there and pray and see how fast you heal

      people like you is the reason why we have so much death in the world because as scientists we cant find cures or develop medicine because we are held back by your kind of ideology

      February 19, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Crazyace

      You're so blind, but people who think like you are indeed blind. Good luck with your fake fairy that you trust so much in.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  16. N&W 1000

    Unless he intends to commit suicide or be arrested, I would SUGGEST you get him AWAY from that railroad track.

    Stay OFF, Stay AWAY, Stay ALIVE.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  17. bdl1978

    For those of you who like to toss around the word "faith", please be aware of its meaning before you do so with such carelessness. Most of the comments on here that I have read seem to be confusing faith for fact. Faith does not equal fact. Believing in your heart does not make something true. Believing in your heart makes you feel better about beling delusional and helps you cope with being weak and misguided. Religion is a crutch and nothing more. It provides a false sense of hope and comfort. It perpetuates mass delusion and brainwashes our children into believing insane stories in a book. It also preaches hatred and intolerance without saying it. Simply by living your life according to the bible you are dismissing all other religions as false, which is ignorant because the possibility of one god existing is just as implausible as the possiblity of any other god existing. Stop being so self righteous and bigoted and attempt to think outside the box.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • noochman

      While you claim faith doesn't equal fact, faith also doesn't prove it isn't fact. Someone who has faith in something you don't agree with, or believe in, doesn't make them ignorant. Nor does it make it false. While someone who believes in Jesus can't prove that he is who he claimed to be, you also can't prove your claim that he isn't.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Buzzer

      Bigoted and self-righteous? Try taking a look in the mirror pal...

      February 19, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  18. Cerapus

    You lost me at "immortality".

    February 19, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  19. Joe

    AGuest9, by inferring that I know nothing are you inferring you know everything? Let's be real man, nobody knows for sure about what happens 1 minute after you die. I mean have you died and come back to life and now can tell us the truth? Of course you haven't. You make your decision and I'll make mine. Just don't pretend you have any answers. Nobody does. And I was just trying to remind the silly goofball of that – the person I replied to in the first place.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  20. Marcia

    “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”
    Seneca

    February 19, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      "The fool has said in his heart that there is no God"-King Solomon Ben David, King of Israel.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • JC

      And still Seneca is not the final word on what is and what is not

      February 19, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.