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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. Free Man

    The good news is out there – there is a purpose for everyone.

    Everyone who is called by My name,
    And whom I have created for My glory,
    Whom I have formed, even whom I have made.
    Isaiah 43:7

    He who believes in the Son has eternal life;
    but
    he who does not obey the Son
    will not see life,
    but the wrath of God abides on him.
    John 3:36

    February 19, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • isolate

      Circular reasoning fallacy:

      The Bible is the word of God.
      It says so in the Bible.
      Therefore, the Bible is the word of God.

      You cannot use the source of what is to be proven to prove anything. Otherwise you wind up with illogical results:

      Bob Brown is innocent of murder.
      Bob Brown says so.
      Therefore, Bob Brown is innocent of murder.

      It works for all the other holy scriptures as well. Plug in the Book of Mormon, the Qur'an, the Avesta, even the science fiction novel Scientologists believe in.

      February 19, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  2. Rationalrantings

    Christians go through hard times just like everyone in this world. The amazing thing about being a Christian is that in our pain and trials we are taught to focus on God and others, not ourselves. God wants to use every terrible situation we find ourselves in for good and to draw others to Him. There is real hope when our faith is based upon God...a hope that doesn't require popping a pill...so its actually good for the believer.
    FYI to many of you...Believing in God is far from a lack of intelligence. Many of us are very educated and that same education has taught us that life is far more that what meets the natural eye or what mere man can calculate. There are radio waves full of images and words floating by you at this moment. Can you see or hear them? But they are real aren't they?

    February 19, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  3. Samsword

    So..... maybe I missed something. Why is believing in an afterlife bad? Seriously, why are so many of the Atheists so aggressive here. Why does this man's belief in an afterlife offend you?

    February 19, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • reason

      People often ask what is wrong with believing in religion "just in case" even though there is no rational basis to do so.

      The problem is that faith is not innocent and issues like denying women their right to safe and legal abortion or.denying equal rights to gays are examples of how it is harmful to others in society even if they want nothing to do with. Forcing irrational beliefs on others is not innocent.

      February 19, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • pervert alert

      qu eers ain't got no rights.

      February 19, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Samsword

      So for you, the issue isn't belief necessarily... It's women's rights.

      If that (or something else) your concern, then maybe you should focus on THAT issue. Attack the real problem you have, instead of the peripherals. Diagnose the correct symptom. Just because someone has a cough, doesn't mean they have the croup eh?

      February 19, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  4. Bart

    Most people can not deal with the concept of a finite life that does end and resort to, as most do, the mythology of religion.

    Why not live your life and enjoy it now with intelligent morality with the reality of science that is the real truth and not stories of ever lasting life or Hell and damnation. You would think that humans have been around long enough now to understand the truth.

    Evolution of ideas also takes a very long time.

    February 19, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • TownC

      Atheists believe in faulty humans in lab coats whose theories are constantly changing, being updated, and discarded. These scientists are the ones who brought you bleeding people to heal them, chemical weapons that killed millions of Jews, and other weapons of mass destruction, among other fun things. I’ll choose God over that any day!

      February 19, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Nivek

      Give me a break townc. Ah yes, science has done no good. Innovation comes with some good and some bad, like everything else.

      February 19, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • Christian

      No matter how great the technological or scientific innovations we produce...we will never solve the problem of the evil that comes from the human heart. If all governments and laws were abolished tomorrow, would everyone be instantly peaceful?? No, because we're fallen, broken sinners, bent on our own selfishness and survival. That's just who we are.

      February 19, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • TR6

      @TownC:” other weapons of mass destruction, among other fun things. I’ll choose God over that any day!”

      So if this god of yours actually exists he has also wiped out almost the entire population of the world in the time of Noah.Has given us: Earthquakes, Hurricanes, cancer, malaria, viruses, germs, sickness, plague, famine, AIDs ….

      I vote for the guys in the lab coats who have brought us antiseptics, anesthetics, antibiotics, aspirin, anti fungals …

      February 19, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • TR6

      @Christian:” If all governments and laws were abolished tomorrow, would everyone be instantly peaceful?? No”

      But if all the religions were abolished tomorrow the world would instantly become a more peaceful place. For example Muslim terrorists, and the Palestinian vs Jew problem in the middle east.

      February 19, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
  5. Iconoclast

    It would seem that the debate over this article is filled with opinion, obsession, and with little room for optimism. Love is the universal language. Whether you are Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, etc, Love shuld always be the language we speak to ourselves and to others. Mr. Dobson is experienceing a transformative moment. He has moved from being the person who explains need, and provides for the needy, to becoming the person who is in need and has needs that should be met. This is where he no longer preaches God to a listener. This is where he becomes a true listener of his God. This is where he finds out just how much Love is a aprt of every breath we take and how much it is a part of our last breath. I applaud his courage, and I understand his reservations. Preaching death and heaven is a far cry from walking across the threshold yourself. But back to Love. Let us all find common ground with this langauge and refrian from taking up battle positions. Love is the answer.

    February 19, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  6. code0111

    Bizarre
    I guess that means you read it? The part where first was the night then the daylight and that was the first day. OR did you just cut to the good parts?

    February 19, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • code0111

      If done the way you interpret, you can even make Obama's administration did everything right and we are now at peace with the world, the economy has been never better.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  7. Manager

    May Allah mercy on you, amen

    February 19, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Christian

      Allah is satan

      February 19, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  8. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 19, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  9. WHY?

    Why are atheists so vocal about nothing..?

    February 19, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Samsword

      I never thought about it that way... that's funny. =)

      February 19, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • bfskinnerpunk

      Most atheist are utterly quiet about their lack of mystical beliefs (due to sharp social ostracism for not believing in magic). However, there are more that are becoming somewhat more bold about expressing their "nothing" world view.
      There is, indeed, nothing out there looking down on us. We only have one another.
      It is arrogant to think that, in the unbelievable universe, a powerful being is somehow obsessed with us... and whether we worship Him. It is downright infantile, actually.

      February 19, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Tim W

      Because we get tied of you Jesus Freaks shoving your Hocus Pocus down our throats.

      February 19, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  10. Brian Holbrook

    Ah, well played, CNN, well played. Your bait-and-switch headlines fool me yet again. Here I thought that I was going to read an uplifting story about a former pastor who, after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, breaks free from the delusion of Christianity ("Facing Death, Top Pastor Rethinks Christianity"). That story would have been worth reading. This one? Not so much. While Mr. Dobson and his family have my sympathy, there isn't much of a story in "Facing Death, Top Pastor Scales Back Ministry To One-On-One."

    February 19, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • TownC

      I too was fooled by the headline but I found it inspiring that this man has not lost his faith, but has found meaning in his suffering!

      February 19, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • bfskinnerpunk

      Exactly! I am betting that CNN's writers cynically planted that headline or order to draw readers.

      February 19, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • TeeO

      I couldn't have agreed more with your comments. Very misleading headline!!!!

      February 19, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  11. Ferit

    pastor is dying but still christian. is this your story CNN?

    February 19, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Steve Inohio

      Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with the same illness in 1963 and was given the same prognosis as the pastor. His story is quite different from that of the pastor from the central viewpoint of where the two men derive their inspiration and will. Perhaps the readers here should look into the Hawking alternative. Google it.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • bfskinnerpunk

      Deceptive headline for sure.... obviously hinting that he was losing his religion... NOT!
      Cheap tactic.
      After reading the first few paragraphs, I scrolled to the bottom to find that he still believed in Zeus.

      February 19, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  12. Monty

    We are here in this marvelous world call earth.. a tiny planet in the vast universe for a brief moment. Let's make the most of it. Create great things... experience all that life has to offer. Waste no time worshiping deities made up by primitive uneducated people 3-5 thousand years ago. Change the world... for the betterment of mankind.

    February 19, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • reason

      Well put Monty!

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nTnjx-JRzE&w=640&h=390]

      February 19, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Christian

      I listen to Jesus. Not Monty

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

      The Bible is true and absolute fact. People who ignore it are deluding themselves because they want to pursue their lusts. Come to Jesus while there is still time, because the prophecies of the Bible are racking up at a rapid pace. For instance, the Bible says in the end days there will be great deception, and the lies being marketed by the liberal media and academia are a deception like none that's ever happened in human history. Read your Bible and believe your Bible, because it is truth and facts/

      February 19, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Say it ain't so

      Those primitive uneducated people from 3,000 to 5,000 years ago created things that we with all our technology will never top.

      February 19, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • bfskinnerpunk

      For you religious folks, as long as your god doesn't instruct you to blow things up... then enjoy your beliefs.
      Hopefully, your invisible friend is a peaceful invention.

      February 19, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • Christian

      I didn't invent Jesus BFskinner

      February 19, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  13. whybs

    It's good that this lost soul found something to comfort his final moments on earth. His constant need for influencing the masses (a sign of a weak, insecure mind) came through loud & clear. As another sign of weakness, he needs ALS to value one-on-one relationships more than the masses.

    By listening carefully & objectively (replace this guy's god with Ra, the Sun God) we can see how this poor soul confirmed the fact that religion has blinded him, and other sheep!

    R.I.P. mister - no worries & no regrets, you'll end up where the Pharaohs went or I'll go! See you then - I.e. IF there were something out there! :)

    February 19, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  14. David Johnson

    That is the "funny" part about being religious. All the bravado, all the absolute belief goes down the drain when their end is near. People instinctively know, that there is no god waiting for them on the other side. They Yell it! They insist they believe... but when it comes down to it,it is pure hope. Nothing more.

    There are no gods. We are no different from any other organism on the planet. We die. We are no more.

    Cheers!

    February 19, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • Joey

      Did you read the article, the man has not lost his faith.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • just sayin

      David Johnson has never been known to concern itself with facts or the truth.
      cheerio

      February 19, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  15. PeaceTV

    Sorry I can not say his name caus media removes posts which have his name!!.
    His first name starts with R and last name with P!

    The only true patriotic 2012 Presidential candidate eager to serve 99% Americans (not corporate America): RP
    Only honest and decent Presidential candidate which lives, talks and walks like ordinary Americans!
    Corporate media owned by war profiteers sensors and demonizes him for telling the common sense Truths!
    Other candidates live like corporate crooks and walk and talk like corporate crooks and are funded by fellow crooks!
    ONLY solution for the problems of 99% Americans: RP
    If you watch RP's mass media censored videos on Utube, you will owe it to yourself to vote for RP!

    February 19, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  16. ReligionIs4Dolts

    Reposting because a former post got stuck at the 20th position at the top of a page:

    With all the genetic mistakes and sick, twisted, sadistic means of torturing human beings during their lifetimes (diseases, whether congenital or acquired over time, common "benign" ailments such as myopia, crooked teeth, too many teeth to even fit in the allotted space in the jaw, ugliness, foul body odor, women with mustaches and unsightly body hair, etc.) is proof that either (1) there is no god and existence is random and meaningless, or (2) there is a god and it is (a) an slack-jawed, inexperienced idiot of an apprentice who was making a practice run at creation, or (b) not worth worship because it is a selfish, childish, tantrum-throwing torture fiend!

    February 19, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      1) You have not read the Bible 2) You are not a Christian 3) You do not love your neighbor as yourself 3) You have no hope for an after-life 4) You do not want to understand God 5) Now if you do not understand that atheism is a religion you are a dolt.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • TownC

      Sure there is suffering in the world, but that does not mean that God does not exist. God does live and loves all of his children. Life is such a short time when viewed through the lens of eternity. Life truly has purpose.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • ReligionIs4Dolts

      Nii Croff: I HAVE read the bible at least twice cover to cover. I was born and raised a Christo-Fascist until I learned enough world history and science to counter all the superst-ition that led man to create god and religion. I believe I was born with the innate principle that all humans are so obviously already born with without needing a religion to teach them ethics...unless they are mentally ill.....and that is the tenet that one must treat others kindly if one expects to be treated kindly...what comes around goes around....every action has an opposite and equal reaction. It's obvious! The rest of your claims are meaningless so I won't debate them.

      TownC: If you will notice the phrase enumerated with (2) then you will realize that what you said is stupid.

      February 19, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • cancersurvivor

      My friend you have never faced the reality of death or been in a place where there is no way out, alone and helpless, except hope. Without this glimmer of faith, what is the purpose of going on. When you deny one's faith, you deny him hope, I know heaven is real. With this belief, I can face the reality of death. God Bless you.

      February 19, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • ReligionIs4Dolts

      cancersurvivor: You are wrong! I am a coma survivor! Bugger off!

      February 19, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  17. Trevor

    LOL. Pastor on his death bed: "It's all a lie. There is no heaven, there is no hell. The soul is not eternal. Jesus was just trolling."

    February 19, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • KeninTexas

      You found this guys suffering funny? A joke? Is that how your parents rasied you? What kind of person are you?

      February 19, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  18. jalun4

    The comments here are disgusting. You should all be ashamed of yourselves. Tolerance means giving validation to beliefs you disagree with. It's saying "I disagree, but I can see how you would think that." It's about believing something you can't prove and admitting that you might be wrong. This is why Christians call liberal atheists intolerant, because it's not enough to disagree with them, you have to invalidate what they believe. I know Christians do the same thing, but at least they don't present themselves as beacons of tolerance.

    February 19, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Monty

      You are right.. christians, catholics, and muslims don't present themselves as beacon of tolerance. They just kill sodomize people millions of them at a time. The crusade, the inquisition, the jihad.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • jalun4

      Yep, because Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Hitler were all religious fanatics, right?

      February 19, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • TR6

      @jalun4:”Yep, because Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Hitler were all religious fanatics, right?”

      Marx, Lenin and Trotsky were Jews. Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were catholic. Stalin was eastern orthodox Christian
      Mao and Lenin ended up as mummies in shrines being worshiped by followers.

      February 19, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  19. Monty

    It's the freaking 21st century folks. Wake up.. there is no heaven, or hell. No easter bunny and no santa clause. Mary was a brown chick from middle east and she spread her legs like all the other girls before she got pregnant.

    February 19, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • wolfpackbob

      God bless you.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • Fred

      Since you brought up the 21st century, how about we mention that fairy tale about how lizards somehow morphed into birds over time. It's hilarious! How about the fairy tale about how life evolved from a puddle of ooze? It's so funny!
      Life does not come from unliving matter. All living things reproduce after their own kind. The Darwinian fairy tales have
      fooled many people. You, too, apparently.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Monty

      Fred.... lizards morph into birds? A comment like that shows how little you know about how evolution actually works. Ignorant religious nuts like you shouldn't even be around today.

      Clearly Darwinism has its flaws.... it doesn't work fast enough to eliminate dumb redn3cks like you.

      February 19, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Fred

      Poor Monty...
      As will all your kind, when you are unable to argue facts, it must be time to start namecalling!
      It must be so embarrassing for you evolution guys to deal with the fact that Darwin converted
      on his deathbed. Your hero switched sides at the last minute. You will, too, if you can.

      February 20, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  20. ReligionIs4Dolts

    test

    February 19, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
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About this blog

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.