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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. Paul Vander

    What if you were to lose your job in two weeks? In today's world of uncertainty, EVERYONE should have secondary incomes! The secret is to find ways to make money, although maybe small amounts, that don't take a lot of time out of your already busy schedule. The more of these small incomes you have, the more it all adds up!

    Google the terms "Cash Stock Simple" and click the very first non-ad site! Go straight to the Penny' Stock section to find out how YOU can learn what the rich already know!

    February 19, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  2. frangipani

    LOVE THIS. thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

    February 19, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  3. Mary Craig

    This story touched me so much because my mother died of ALS in 1986. This was a time when not much was really known about the disease and there was NO treatments. Watching a person lose any ability to move was devastating and for her experiencing it was worse for her. Her mind was sharp but she just could move nothing. Thanks for this story it is a true blessing to know that God is still in control of everything even such a horrible disease as ALS. My Mother was a Christian and I know I will see her someday again and she will have no problem moving and talking and eating. She will be whole again., She was my best friend and after all this time I still miss her everyday!!! God Bless you Ed.

    February 19, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • R. Diane

      Thanks for the post....:)

      February 19, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Mark

      Thank you for sharing Mary

      February 19, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  4. Also a Non Believer

    Wow. There is so much vitriol and hate in the comments by Atheists, who profess to be good and moral (according to what standard? A Judeo-Christian one.), that it makes Christianity seem positively uplifting. Atheists, if you have such a wonderful grip on reality, perhaps you can understand that your vitriol helps nothing, and, frankly, makes you sound more whako than the Christians over whom you claim to be so superior. I'm not a fan of organized religion, but at least I'm open-minded enough to have compassion for Pastor Dobson.

    February 19, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      Dobby can shove it. He was the worst sort.

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

      No more so then what Dobson and Falwell preached. He and Falwell liked to blame natural disasters and epidemics on the actions of people. And now oddly he is going to lose his ability to communicate. If there is a God. He hit the nail on the head with this one.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Mott the Hoople

      Atheists love to decry religion, yet 99.99%+ of misery you read about in the newspaper is not due to religion at all, but to the hedonistic, selfish worldview of atheism. Spouses killing each other out of jealousy, not due to religious imperative, but to envious selfish motives. Drunk drivers killing others, not due to religious motives, but to selfish motives of being buzzed. And almost all wars in the last 100 years are due to selfish political motives, not religion.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Keith

      Here we go again "the vitriol and anger of the atheist", I am an atheist and very proud of it. Yet any anger or vitriol you see in me is dwarfed by the ravings coming from the evangelical religious community, try watching any of the religious TV channels and here the screaming from the pastors. The hatred towards those of us who KNOW the truth is frightening. The insults that are regularly hurled at us are beyond belief, it is as if they receive brownie points from their gods the more they can insult and try to hurt us. Yet time and again we, the atheists are targeted as the evil, vile, angry and insulting ones. First look to your own kind to see the naked evil in your own words and actions. Who ever stands up for the atheists, do you EVER here religious leaders chastise their own kind for their venom? NO you never do.
      I on the other hand see the loathing of the religious community every day on the notice boards outside the churches and have NO forum to fight back. So stop this hatred and remember I have the same rights as you do or so I have been led to believe, I am still searching for them.
      I will be courteous and generous and leave you with MY BLESSING, a far greater gift than the blessing of a cruel vindictive and bloodthirsty god.
      Apologies welcomed.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • hez316

      @Keith. I understand your perspective and as a Christian can only say that not all Christians are Christlike (I am guilty as well). The message of Christ is not necessarily portrayed by what you hear on TV and radio.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  5. Dorethia

    This was so inspiring, so many lessons can be taken from Dobson's life. God bless him and thank you CNN for sharing his story.

    February 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      Dobby always helps Harry Potter.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • R. Diane

      :)
      WELL SAID

      February 19, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • R. Diane

      The well said was for DORETHIA.. :)

      February 19, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  6. Mott the Hoople

    A lot of "religious" people do not believe in their religion. They are just "going through the motions" because it is socially expected of them (as in Christianity) or ethnically expected of them (as in Reformed Jews).

    February 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      No!!!

      February 19, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • mullahfullahbullah

      That is my perception on a lot of people too. I am an agnostic and am jealous of those with faith. I think overall that religion does more good than bad. It is when extremists take control is where there should be fear. A lot of atheists have religion equaling extremism and while there are good examples of this I think the majority of religious people are good.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  7. roger

    I see the video as another form of preaching to 5,000 people just a different medium. The reaching out is existentialism 101, wanting meaning in a meaningless world, realized preaching didn't do it, so I'll be immortal if I make a video. Same sort of "i'm special" defense in the face of death.

    February 19, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Kayla

      Or....he's actually genuine in his actions? A lot of people have awakenings when faced with death. I'd rather assume the best about people and be happy than to assume the worst and walk around bitter all the time.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  8. bao

    Christianity - where killing fetuses is wrong, but killing babies after they are born by 'dashing them against the rocks' is perfectly OK (Psalm 137:9)

    February 19, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Mott the Hoople

      Uh, your Psalmist reference is Judaic, not Christian.

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

      That passage isn't saying it's "OK." It's a historical account, in the form of prose...it's not telling anyone to kill babies.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Uminus

      Please stop using one little verse and building a doctrine around it, if your going to quote it. Do the entire paragraph you ripped it from. Im sure if you did then it would not justify your little comment.

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

      This is a christian versus taken out of context. This is when the Babylon's attacked Zion and destroyed the children. This is old testament and Christianity hadn't been born yet. As typical, twisting the word of truth by a liberal somewhere who didn't read the bible.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  9. paul

    the think is with this pastors on salaries is that God go away from them and they became just rambler

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

      uhh what?

      February 19, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • jim atmadison

      I had a Rambler once, many years ago.

      Never thought about becoming one......

      February 19, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  10. ohreally

    This is a gentleman that helped bring us things like gays are responsible for Aids and 911 was god's wrath, so I wonder what he did to deserve ALS?

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

      Ridiculous. God does not punish people for their behaviors...you don't know this man. Maybe he realized the errors of his ways and asked God for forgiveness. If so, he is a new person and is forgiven. God doesn't repay evil for evil. That's in the Bible. The character of God is embodied in the life of Jesus Christ. Study his life and how he interacted with people and you'll learn how he feels about his children...

      February 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • ohreally

      Let me know when he asks all those people he and Falwell helped hurt for forgiveness and then you might be onto something.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Steve427

      Blow it out your a$S.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Get a Grip

      personal responsibility, remember that phrase?... just once before he dies, I'd like to hear him apologize and ask forgiveness from the millions of people he preached hated and intolerance against and the resulting pain and suffering he caused.. My friend's mother died of ALS, so I do understand how awful it is.... and although this article illustrates a man's painful journey through this disease, more than anything I take away from this article is the "poor me" aspect to it. Completely absent in this account is the very real relationship between his hatred of others and his own suffering... No, God is not punishing him... he has brought this on himself... you can call it karma or whatever, but the profoundest truth of of spirit, life, and reality is simply: what we put out into the world comes back to us manyfold... it is an immutable law of the universe... All this said, I do feel compassion for this man.... I just hope at some point, he will make the connect between his suffering and the suffering he caused and make right by it with those suffering he caused.....

      February 19, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  11. Thomas

    No need to keep the old law of Moses, since the gospel of Jesus Christ replaced that. We do live forever. The atonement of Jesus Christ did that for us.

    February 19, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • John Gault

      There are several passages in the NT where Jesus endorses the old. "nothing is to be added or taken away" and the fact the you cannot escape the law of the Pharisees. If you think Jesus provides an out for all the horrors of the Old testament I would then say the idea of Jesus was created because people could not follow the strict teaching of the Old Testament so they created a way out...

      February 19, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • R. Diane

      @ Thomas.....AMEN!!!

      February 19, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  12. Carol

    i put my head down and cried after watching this amazing film. So much wisdom in such a short few minutes! I, too, lost everything as the wife of a pastor who divorced me to marry his lover. I lost friends, my faith community, my structure, my vision, my support system, and even certain family members. Stripped and parred down to the essence of who i was, i came to the quiet and gradual realization that the biggest battle i face is the battle to allow God to restructure my life and to teach me how to be a disciple and follower of Jesus in a world so at odds with His teaching. it's not religion; it's a relationship.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Joy of Sin

      Troll

      February 19, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • R. Diane

      @ Carol...beautifully written...THANK YOU

      February 19, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  13. eikand

    The headline for this article is ridiculous. ..."rethinks Christianity," there is nothing in this article that implies he's rethinking Christianity. Not a bit. Just another headline CNN used to get people interested in reading about negativity as it pertains to the Christian faith. Sad.

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

      It's not CNN trying being anti-Christian at all. It's just CNN trying to get people to look at more banners and make them more money. They're not in the business of attacking religions. They are, however, in the business of making money, and headlines are often craftily constructed to accomplish just that. Still bad on CNN's part, but let's be realistic about the reason.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • geno

      Agree with you completely. This is typical CNN using an incorrect teaser to get people to read the story.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Paul

      I was drawn to this article for the same reason and found that the story did not equal the headline (on CNN's front page at that).

      February 19, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • hez316

      John Gault That Lawrence Kass must be really smart.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  14. Todd

    I cringe at the idea that there are still people judging this man based on what was the "moral" majority. Ed has grown in his life...years have past...if those who are still stuck in the same pattern they were 20-30 years ago, then they are the ones with a problem, a flaw...not Ed. What I have seen, heard and read in the past decade from Mr. Dobson is not a message of hate-but a simple message of LOVE. He may make some uncomfortable because he doesn't hide behind logic...he is honest– a follower of Jesus. He is what he is. I for one refer to him as a spiritual mentor, a hero to my faith.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • My Take

      If this man has changed then great. I did not see eany evidence of this in this article.

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

      You do not know the meaning of evidence, do you?

      February 19, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      So for a simple word like prophesy you cannot ask the man who sired you but rather insult him. I think you are religious at heart and I hope your dad is spiritual. However I think if u need that information there are plenty of atheist theology professors to supply it.

      February 19, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  15. My Take

    This man seems to still be embracing the evil ways of the Moral Majority. Where is the change in his soul?

    February 19, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      To be a good judge or juror you must not be prejudiced. Can you say you are not? Honestly?

      February 19, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  16. joel palmer

    WHY does CNN keep pushing this baloney????

    February 19, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • eikand

      are you aware that you're reading the "Belief" portion of the website?

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

      If you believe it to be baloney, don't encourage them by reading it...and posting.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  17. petemg

    We are all human and have a right to question. When we question God it is a way for Him to show Himself. I am sure you have heard the story about a scientist who did not believe and went out to prove there was no God. In the end he found himself proving the existence of God. We as humans have no way of understanding Grace. We are taught you cannot get something for nothing. When we just pray God help my unbelief He will help you.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Dan502

      There has never been a proving of a god. If that occurect faith would cease to exist and I'm sure these discussions on CNN.com would stop.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • John Gault

      He proved the existence of god? I would think that would have made the news..........

      February 19, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  18. Pastor Don

    Susan's former pastoor for many years in GR. You may know of him. Thought you might like to hear what he has to say about the meaning of life. Dick

    February 19, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  19. Tom Hagen

    One thing YOU ALL SHOULD KNOW about THE CATHOLIC CHURCH is this:

    WITHOUT THE CHURCH AND THE WARRIORS IT HAS SENT FORTH...ALL OF US WOULD NOW HAVE TO PAUSE...

    FOR ONE OF DAILY 5 PRAYERS!

    i just don't see PASTER DOBSON and his merry crew of MEGA CHURCHers...doing the same thing!

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

      Actually, one out of 5 prayers wouldn't be too bad.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  20. CokeHead

    Religion is manufactured by self-important humans that cannot handle the real truth about death i.e. it's finality. If people could only get it through their thick skulls that you only have one shot at existing they wouldn't be so apt to fly planes into buildings for a bunch of virgins. Death is final, your body rots and all that is left are pictures, memory and legacy and THAT should be the impetus for living a good life.

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

      So how then was creation created if there is nobody out there. There was nothing before him because He is the great Creator. It may seem that people have a weakness and have to have religion. Wrong, when we show and admit we are weak, He is there for us. We were created to coexist with Him and our fellow man.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • hez316

      IIf you really believe that, people would naturally live only for hedonistic reasons, oh wait......

      February 19, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      You are decieving yourself, thinking that's all there is to life and death is the end!

      February 19, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Crad

      Cokehead. Perhaps you believe death is final because YOU cant accept the fact that you may be accountable for things you do in this life. You know, NOBODY knows the amswer, right? Its never been proven through science that death is the end. Never. In fact, we have more evidence to the contrary. We see the answers in things like particle physics, strange things about life that lean toward multiple dimensions and continuation. Dont be so afraid of the truth my man.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Crad

      Oh, and the people who flew planes into buildings had NOTHING to do with religion. It was political. Otherwise the pilots wouldnt have been in strip bars drinking alcohol.. Numskull

      February 19, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Mott the Hoople

      Don't worry, 99%+ of humans do believe in the finality of death. That is why we see that selfish hedonism is rife in the world. Drug addicts, crime, war and so on is not due to the faith of religion... it is due to the lack of it. Sure, there are exceptions, like the religious fanatics that took out the WTC, killing 3,000. Yet 20x that occurs annually from drunk driving and drug violence alone.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Bizarre

      Crad: "the people who flew planes into buildings had NOTHING to do with religion. It was political. "

      Yeah, "political" insofar as being in support of a totally theistic government and their "God." It had MUCH to do (if not EVERYTHING) with religion.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • John Gault

      petemg, if nothing was there what created him? And if you're gonna tell me he is above that, then I say the creation of the universe by natural causes is above that. Suggest you open the book "A Universe From Nothing" by Lawrence Kass. Try to keep up...

      February 19, 2012 at 2:35 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.