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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 • Faith Now • United States

soundoff (3,194 Responses)
  1. doodlerbug

    I am a mother with five children. I fought for them, with them, and my life was caring for them and ensuring they grew up to be – what ever they wanted, but happy. And now that the youngest is 18, I also am overwhelmed with not being needed. But I passed a mirror by the other day and caught my reflection... and then it was obvious to me. I was needed, by me. So many years I had busied my life doing for so many others, and feeling complete and whole. But was I? I started fearing death but only because of those I would leave behind I think – and the fear of what happens after my last breath. But through the weeks, I started giving myself more time, reading more, and just ... relaxing. I also started wriiting about my past, a very very hard life, in hopes others will see – that no matter what happens, you can push on – get past and most often learn to appreciate the days we do have. I did. I hope this man finds that he can still be important to others, as he has been here, telling his story. Through this he gives others hope. Be well Ed Dobson, and you still do matter.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
      and
      fuk you Ed Dobson

      February 19, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  2. mm

    This is another hit piece on Christianity provided by CNN. It's pathetic.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  3. Dmac

    Not religious myself, but my favorite line is when he says “I am no longer a preacher ... I am a Jesus follower. Period.”

    This is how faith SHOULD be. Your own private reflections, studies, and personal efforts to uphold the ideals of humanity and compassion for our fellow man. NOT a church, and not preaching to, or trying to control or tell others how they should live their lives. If there is one message he should spread, it is this one.

    "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ" – Mohandas Gandhi

    February 19, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  4. Jim J

    If God isn't real, how did he create man in his own image? Checkmate, atheists!

    February 19, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      That one always cracks me up. Thanks Jim.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • urownexperience

      I hope you're being satirical. If not, you are in big trouble. As long as God is unproven, which he will always be, he can't do a thing. He can't write Bibles, and he can't create.

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

      Actually, quite the opposite is true. Humans have always created gods in their own image.

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

      You got it exactly backwards. Man created god, not the other way around.

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

      If god isn't real he didn't create anything.... Duh

      February 19, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Crad

      Man created gods in THEIR image? Weird, i dont think you know what half of the gods looked like that people used to worship.. Ha ha..

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

      Please tell me you're joking. Your circular logic is just ... appalling.

      How about because God was created by man to explain things we did not (or still don't fully) understand, and was created to look like we do because that was all we knew. It made sense thousands of years ago as an explanation for how we got here, before our modern observations and understanding of evolution. Not so much anymore..

      Duh.

      Anthropocentrism

      February 19, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Andrew S

      Maybe there's something called evolution... Try reading a book and taking a high school class. Don't pull this "for the Bible tells me so" BS.

      I love how when people try to make sense of the world, its origin, and the technicalities of life, people are immediately tagged as an atheist for trying to think for themselves rather than blindly following a book of rumors with a foggy history.

      Do as you preach and love everyone, no matter what they believe.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • jim atmadison

      Dumbest 'checkmate' ever. Thanks!

      February 19, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  5. Desa

    Most people in Rome were Christians by the time Emperor Constantine took the thrown. It had been more than 3 centuries since it had begun. Choosing Christianity might have been a statigic move by Constantine as it was the religion most of his subjects believed in.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  6. Claro

    Explore deeper prayer.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      Ok I guess.

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

      This is it.. You know, im always floored when i hear non believers mock prayer as if it were a wish for a genie in a bottle, and then laugh at how we have war and disease. Prayer is such a deep communication channel with god and ive met some people who actually pray for insight on how to pray.. Because its such a wonderous and exciting form of communication. I feel really sorry for people who just dont get that.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • NJBob

      That makes as much sense as telling people to explore deeper futility.

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

      @NJBob- but if somebody finds some sort of fulfillment or strength, from it... is it really futile?

      February 20, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  7. this is not news

    This story is not news, CNN should be ashamed to have this on the website's front page. This will be the last time i come to this site for news. If i wanted to read this sort of tabloid nonsense i would read just that, a tabloid.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Christian Faith

      There is so much hate in this world, but the love of God can change a life, and keep anyone going forward in the strength of their faith in Jesus Christ. Their will always be doubters, and haters, and mockers, and persecutors with harsh criticism for real Christians that practice and LIVE the life of Jesus Christ, but this will never stop the love of God from reaching out to those hearts that are seeking help and truth and love. Fellow Christians, I encourage you: never surrender your heart to the darkness and the bitterness of this world.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Mark

      What an absolute ASS you ARE for this response.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  8. MIke

    What a touching story. God bless you Ed. Your story has touched me!

    February 19, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      Good one Mike. You are a crack up.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  9. Nii Croffie

    Not a response to article but a post reading "BAN SCIENCE..."

    February 19, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  10. william peterson

    It's refreshing to see the kindness coming through on this board.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      I agree, we can all tell Dobby to go fuk himself together, but still feel bad for him at the same time. Touching.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  11. Tom Hagen

    Pastor Dobson...CONVERT TO CATHOLICISM!

    February 19, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Chuck

      So he can molest little boys with out shame?

      February 19, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Bill

      Is this the cult that worships Mary more than Jesus? Sets the Pope up as the link between man and God instead of Jesus? No Thanks

      February 19, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  12. Chuck

    Where's a good faith healer when you need one? I think karma has gotten him for working with Falwell and Moral Majority.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  13. Cielo

    I wonder if all his new-found insights has lead him to repent the evil he did with the Moral Majority? Falwell is already receiving the bitter rewards for his hatred and bigotry. Maybe in a Scrooge-like turnaround, this man can save his soul.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • N&W 1000

      You sound like a bitter nut.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      Sometimes you don't....

      February 19, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  14. bob

    Maybe the end of this life and the begining of the next.. The body returns to the earth and the Soul returns to God

    February 19, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  15. Willie

    I was born into the christian religion and lived the first 30 years of my life nose deep in the bible. I became ill and was less than a year to live. In that year I questioned every belief I had, which led me to dump my religion. Whew, what a relief! I was truly born again once I quit being a christian. Somehow, and not by the grace of any make belief god, I survived my illness, and here I am 22 years later. I know what this man is going through, and if he is honest with himself, he will find the truth. Belief is the enemy, it is much better to try and understand. Belief is the moment when your mind ceases to think and says, yes I have enough information, I believe. Belief=the death of a thinking mind. When the thinking mind dies there is no reason for the body to survive.

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

      Willie, you have unthinkingly bought into the modern mythological view of Reason, which is a truncated naive view that has nothing to do with true human rationality. You didn't start thinking, you simply switched fundamentalisms.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      You obviously didn't learn anything from your life's experiences.
      Some people are given a chance, another one and then another, but they squander them, and end up on the day of their departure in total poverty of their soul...
      You obviously never knew God, only religion. They are NOT the same! Satan has deceived you, dear soul, and you will find out that you lived your life in vain, and your chances amiss!

      February 19, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      Hahahaa... I think saying u were born into the Christian faith and read the Bible can be used by any number of about 100 cults so please identify the church. Also this man has developed spirituality in his suffering and has lived an extra 8yrs. I don't think his faith is injuring him at all.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Chuck

      reminds me of a great bumper sticker. Don't pray in my school and I won't think in your church.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • NJBob

      You are absolutely correct. Dumping my religion was the most exhilarating, liberating thing I have ever done. Faith is the opposite of reason.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Willie

      Whenever I tell my story to others, the xtians are always first to get upset and critical. Saying silly things like "you never were a christian", or "what cult did you come from?' How do you know what is in another persons heart? Doesn't it say not to judge others in your holey book? Until you experience the freedom gained by dumping religion you will always be trapped in the dark.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Christian Faith

      Willie, I did the same as you, and walked away from faith over to "reason". Now I've come back again to faith in Jesus Christ, realizing that the 'reason" of mankind and human nature is the root cause of foolishness, self-interest, greed, chaos and destruction. If not for the grace of God, this world would have long ago come to self destruction- and one day it will finally be allowed to happen. Do not be deceived by the false hope of human reason: look at the constant state of human affairs in the world of politics and you will see the end result of your love affair with reason: war, murder, corruption, financial ruin, uncertainty, fear and violence. Do you put your trust in the reason of man?

      February 19, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Willie

      I never said reason, I said "understanding". Proof that faith makes you blind. Xtians only show compassion to those who share their misbeliefs or those they feel they can convert. Everyone else is simply the enemy. They always want to use my story to justify the beliefs they learned from fraudulent men like the one this article is written about. Well, it's my story, not yours, if you want to live your life in a state of delusion that is your business. I am not trying to convert you or anyone else to my way of thinking, just stating what I have grown to understand.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Christian Faith

      Faith doesn't make a person blind, Willie, its the lack of understanding about what faith is that makes people blind. Its the lack of selfless love and compassion for a fellow human being that makes a man blind to what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is really all about, Willie. You can't see God through a telescope, but you CAN see God in the life of a human being that has been touched by the presence and indwelling of God. You CAN see God's work in the life of a man that has been miraculously changed and transformed by power of God! The living God is not a fable invented by any man.

      But the reason of man, the UNDERSTANDING of man, is blinded to receiving the comprehension of spiritual matters, because only GOD can open the mind and the heart to receive the indwelling truth of spiritual matters. Reason tells us that we will only believe something when we see it, while faith instead tells us that we will only see it when we believe it. God has turned the reason of man on its head, and confounded the worldly wise so that the wisdom of the world runs contrary to the wisdom of God. God reaches out to the humble and the repentant man, but confounds the proud and the wicked because his heart is filled with evil.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • Willie

      Again, what is with your using the word reason as opposed to belief? That is not what I said. I said understanding, which is completely different than reason. No wonder you still believe in the bible, you don't understand the meaning of words. You will get far more out of reading the dictionary than you will the bible, my guess is you've never completely read either. Please pick up the former before you try and cipher what others write.

      February 19, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  16. MotoJB

    A sweet man...I wish him well.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      I wish there was a Hell so he could go there. And be well of course.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  17. DE

    The only reason the West is christian is because Emperor Constantine saw a meteor and saw it as a sign from god. They have even found the crater 60 miles west of Rome.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      Simple is synonymous with foolish.

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

      very true

      all religions are made up in order to explain natural phenomena which today are explained by science

      February 19, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      Explain the existence of the human conscience using science. I'm waiting...

      February 19, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Tom Hagen

      DUDE...CHI RHO marked on shields and swords PREVAILED

      February 19, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • HAL

      NiiCroffie,

      Conscience? Computers can be programmed with a "conscience" (ethics, morality, etc.), and robots can be programmed to laugh, cry, offer sympathy, pray, etc. in response to specified stimuli. We are learning how the mind works.... far to go, though, certainly.

      http://www.philosophynow.org/issues/72/The_Conscience_Of_The_Machine

      February 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  18. Joe

    jason83, what are you talking about? I'm a Christian and I certainly believe in the afterlife. I am defending this man in the article. I was responding to somebody who claims they know for sure that absolutely nothing happens after you die. Seems like you mistook their comment for mine. Be careful about assumptions my friend....

    February 19, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  19. Nii Croffie

    Not written by a believer. Armani you should know this if you were discerning. You are blinded by prejudice.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  20. Chedar

    Why worry about where are we going. Just think where we come from and we did worried when we were born. It is pretty evident that when we were born we have to cry.. Why we cry? is because this world is uncertain and that we just have to take this world one day at a time. If we deal more in fear and wonder where we are going, we are shows nothing but attachment to this very world we all suffer.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:40 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.