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.”
GOD IS LOVING AND LOVE ALL MANKIND. WE HAVE NO RIGHT TO STIFF OUR NECKS TO LORD. HE WEEPS FOR ALL THOSE WHO REJECT HIM EVEN THOUGH WE GIVE MESSAGE OF SALVATION OF HOPE NAD LOVE TO PEOPLE. GOD IS JUST AND IN ORDER FOR GOD TO BE JUST HE IS ALSO HOLY. HE NEVER MADE HELL FOR HUMANS. HE MADE IT FOR DEMONS. BUT HUMANS CHOSE TO DO EVIL AND MAKE satan there god AND NOT MAKE JESUS AS LROD AND SAVIOR. SO NOW WE HAVE WHAT WE HAVE. JESUS LOVES THE CHILDREN AND SO DOES GOD. IN FACT IF A CHILD DIES AT A VERY YOUNG AGE THEY WILL BE WITH JESUS AND THE ANGELS CARRY THEM UP IN A BASKET UP TO HEAVEN THE BABIES AND STUFF CUZ JESUS LOVES THEMA ND TEHRE IS A SPECIAL PLACE IN HEAVEN FOR THEM. HEAVEN IS A MORE PEACEFUL PLACE. BUT DEATH WILL HAPPEN AND ITY IS ONCE APPOINTED TO MAN WE ALL HAVE A DAY. BUT IF YOU ARE OLDER AND HAVE UNDERSTANDING THEN YOU KNOW GOSPEL NOW......YOU KNOW HOW TO GET SAVED. ONCE YOU KNOW ABOUT HEAVEN AND HELL AND UNDERSTAND IT THEN YOU ARE HELD ACCOUNTABLE. JESUS WEEPS FOR ALL THOSE THAT CHOOSE HELL. HE DOESNT WANT THEM TO GO THERE. HE WANTS THEM TO BE SAVED BUT YOU GOD IS ALSO HOLY AND AS A HOLY GOD HE CANNOT TOLERATE SIN THIS WORLD SO CHOOSE CHRIST AND FOLLOW CHRIST AND SIN NO MORE. NOT ALL SUFFERING IS OF GOD. SATAN IS OUT TO STEAL KILL AND DESTROY AND MAKE PEOPEL SICK AND HAVE TERRIBLE DISESES. NOT ASSUME EVERYTHING IS OF GOD. SATAN AND HIS DEMONS ARE RUNNGIN ON THIS EARTH TTRYING TO KILL PEOPEL AND TRYING TO KEEP YOU FROM RECEIVING GOD AND HATE GOD. RECEIVE GODS LOVE. BUT GOD IS ALSO HOLY GOD AND YOU MUST CHOOSE TO UNDERSTAND YOUR SIN AND TURN FROM IT. IF HE IS HOLY HE CANNOT ALLOW SIN TO ENTER HIS KINGDOM. SO CHOOSE THIS DAY TO RECEIVE FORGIVENESS OF CHRIST OFFERED TO YOU. GOD IS FORGIVING BUT IT CAME AT A COST OF WRATH OF GOD OCMING UPON JESUS CHRIST TO PAY FOR OUR PUINISHMENT OF SINS AND WE HAVE NO RIGHT TO SAY OH WHAT HAS GOD DONE FOR ME. JESUS PAID FOR OUR SINS BUT YOU MUST RECEIVE IT. YOU CANT KEEP ON IN SIN AND BE LIKE JESUS IS ALL FORGIVING. HE IS WILLING TO FORHGIVE BUT YOU MUST RECEIVE FORGIVENESS AND BE SORROWFUL FOR YOUR SINS AND TURN FRO SIN AND GIVE YOU RHEART TO CHRIST IN EXCHANGE FOR TURNING FROM SIN. GODLOVESTHEWORLD.COM
You sir, are a freak of nature. You represents the most extreme delusional state a human can achieve; religious delusion. With it's overbearing burden of guilt and grief and shame, what a bunch of nonsense. You should be ashamed of the way you act because of those delusions. Please, get help at a qualified medical facility as soon as possible, for your own sake. Thank you.
Your caps lock key is broken......
Keep it up, nuthead... my winter's supply is running low.
COMPASSION is the Great Lesson taught to US by Pain. The Religious Right; like their cousins The Tea Party have a SELF CENTERED World View with a GOD of HATE and ANGRY CONDEMNATION. The WAY of JESUS is the Same Way taught by the BUDDHA – The Greatest Good is UNITY in LOVING KINDNESS borne out of RESPECT for the Gift of Life we have Received.
You have a very shallow understanding about Buddha - did you know what he did at the birth of his first child? He got up and left the child and the mother to go on his self-centered enlightenment trip. Very incompassionate. Jesus, on the other hand, seeing our losteness came to us and gave his life to save us.
Buddha taught his followers to reject and deny all passion - he once said "don't hate - and don't love". Jesus in contrast taught His followers to love passionately.
Jesus pointed His followers towards eternal life. Buddha's goal - Nirvana, which is derived from an old sanskrit word used when blowing out a candle - being dissolve into nothingness.
Jesus rose from the dead - Buddha stayed dead. That's why Ed Dobson can live purpose, hope and assurance.
Many Christian scriptures are almost identical to the words of the Buddha – who lived hundreds of years earlier.
By far the worst religion is Judiasm. Jesse Jackson was right to call it a guttler religion
All religious delusions are "guttler" ideologies, don't kid yourself.
I'm sorry about the HELL where you have chosen to spend eternity starting NOW
Well....if there is anyone who knows alot about the gutter....it's definately Jesse Jackson.
If judaism is a gutter religion, YOU are the gutter. Filthy nazi, you and all your typical ignorant black americans like jesse jackson.
If you agree with that extortionist, it shows what an imbecile you are
Manager, Once you read the Bible, you may understand it is a direct communication between you and God. Unlike having to do works to be freed. You dont have to read it to be free, it is in a person's heart whether or not you deny God.
Some people out there make religions force people to follow their plans. But each persons heart is at stake. God is Love.
I dont think killing in his name automatically exempts a crime.
Actually, the bible is a communication to you from bronze age men, by way of translation by humans with personal and political agendas. But if that's what you call god, go for it.
Great story and God bless you man! ALS must be devastating, but I am so glad, like Paul, you carry on strong for Christ. There will always be the haters, but you are loved by the ultimate lover. Jesus Christ!
God loves and want our soul not our body, but people from cnn will not comprehend
what would a god do with a soul?
Don't worry about death, because death is inevitable. It will happen. Live life! Have fun, nobody knows what happens after death. I don't know if there is a heaven or not, I don't know if when you die you cease to exist. It could be either one, it could be both, or it could be neither of the two. I respect the opinions of Atheists and Christians and other religions because nobody knows, NOBODY on this earth can really tell what happens when you die, which is why death is a mystery that we shouldn't fear. Just live life people and love those around you :)
I wonder if , God forbid, you were struck with a terminal disease if you would have such a laissez faire approach to mortality?
You are correct, no one can tell you what's going to happen. BUT...we can tell you, categorically, that it does NOT involve a guy riding a horse in the clouds pulling a sword out of his mouth and killing everyone he doesn't like.
God gives you disease, but you say "God forbid". If god forbids, then you must not get disease. Either that, or you get disease because god is a delusion.
It`s the "one at a time " that could use more help...Those stranded on the road with everyone passing them by...and those hungry walking or walking in bad weather...and Children !...It is more than those we neglect,yes neglect.If it were you out of gas in the bitter snowy weather,or just having car trouble and everyone passes you by you would see what needs changed.Some will say it is risky,but I`ve never had a problem.People can help without preaching.Although someone who thinks they are alone in life feeling the presence of God with them after a ride from a former preacher or just good Samaritan would have a lifetime gift.Before the people post a reply there is no God know that you cannot prove that anymore than almost everyone who believes could prove there is a God.I will just state what exists forever beyond the boundary of the universe should be the focus.Infinity.With it having an intelligence it is everything`s maker.All religions are false otherwise.
A debilitating illness should not change the way a Christian meets life. There are so many professing believers who, when God brings trials, will fold up and take off. "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."
For those who have no hope in eternal life, when illness strikes you are left to ponder what could have been. For us who know Christ Eternal, we ponder what is to come!
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.
These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you.
You're kidding, right? Xtians are the most death-scared people I know. They will sit there and ask for tubes down the throat, and up the rectum, long before they will give any thought to letting someone go and see their maker. Why do you think suicide is illegal? Or even doctor assisted death for the terminally ill? It's because xtian's are so scared of death, that they have outlawed it, and urinated on any human dignity that may exist there. Please, quit telling lies.
" For us who know Christ Eternal, we ponder what is to come! "
So be done with it and go meet your maker
whatwhatwhat, as I said there are many professing belief in Christ until their faith is tested. I wouldn't say they give Christianity a bad name but unbelievers are the first to pick up on that. I have no problem with someone taking their own life if that is what they want. I don't believe the state has a right to tell a woman she can kill her child anymore that it has a right to tell an adult they can't end their own life. I do believe we will all answer for our actions. Real Christians will tell you death has no sting. The Apostle Paul said "absent from the body is presense with Christ". I pray that you would search the scripture and contemplate your own life. The Holy Spirit Will speak to you through His Word.
Evangelicals don't follow Jesus. They follow preachers.
Just so you know Andrew, you're wrong. Just so you know.
Actually, Andrew is correct.
God bless him. He knows the road and is helping so many others to see the way. I'm no born again. I'm just a Catholic who doesn't listen to Rome or the Bishops – yet faith of any kind helps us thru difficult times including our passing.
YOU CAN GET SAVED...YOU JUST HAVE TO UNDERSTAND JESUS DIED ON CROSS TO PAY FOR PUNISHMENT OF OUR SISN THAT WE SHOULD HAVE TO PAY FOR CUZ WE CHOOSE TO SIN! WE CHOOSE TO SIN AND THEN THING GOD OWES US SOMETHING. TURN FROM SIN AND FALL ON KNEES AND PRAY TO JESUS AND RECEIVE HIS FORGIVENESS OF SINS. JESUS IS ONLY WAY TRUTH AND LIFE.....GODLOVESTHEWORLD.COM
You poor delusional person.................stop shouting.
In the first part of the article, "game" should be spelled "gave" where it talks about doctors. Stop using spellchecks retard.
Stop using the word "retard" to refer to a common writing error.
You've fought the good fight. We were meant to be born and die, atleast in this life time. Do not question your efforts in life spritually or socially. They will echo in the hearts youve touched and stand out in the eyes of our creator. Hope to see you on the otherside. Till then make the most of your days on this beatiful place that we call earth. Paradise is on the Horizon.
Just comes to show how fake all those mega churches are...
There are many religions and beliefs in the world and nobody knows for sure what will happen after death.
All we can hope is that is is a good place no mater what you believe.
Is dirt good? Cuz that is where you are going.
Wouldn't you want to follow the One who died and triumphed over that death?
Uh Will, if your Jesus man really was god in flesh then it sacrificed nothing and returned to it's natural form.
In death no one wins or looses. You just die. No matter if you are a king or beggar. Enjoy your life when you have it and face it courageously when you are loosing it. If you can't then wrap yourself in the warm blanket of your Religion.
Will? There is no proof of your claim. None at all. I know some people are afraid of death and they find comfort in the pretty mythology of heaven.
Personally, I find nothing to fear about death. I am not troubled by the fact that my life will end and eventually I will be forgotten. I don't need the fairy tale, so there is absolutely no reason for me to believe in anything that can't be supported by fact.
Throughout history, literally thousands of gods have been created, worshiped, replace and rejected by humans. There is not a shred of evidence to support the existence of any of those gods, even yours.
I know it's important for most people to think that the end of life is a doorway to another world, but the truth is: There is no logical reason to believe it. It is, however, a GREAT way for religions to control everyone. Scare 'em and you have 'em under your thumb. They'll give money, jump when you say so and get REALLY emotional when you disagree with them. Which is why religious people have been slaughtering each other since the first person piped up and said, "My God is better."
I believe atheists are arrogant and selfish.
LMFAO.....as if Christians aren't??
Nope it is the Christians that are...thinking a celestial being is involved in every facet of your life and has a purpose for you...how narcissistic.
What a well-reasoned, insightful addition to the discussion.
But you still must love your fellow man, no?
What an arrogant, self-riteous comment.
Theists are arrogant to think that a god actually cares about them.
Christianity has been a slaughterhouse since the beginning. Nonbelievers. Other Christians. You name it.
Well, Ian, you are certainly ent.itled to your opinion. However, you if are concerned about arrogance, you may want to look in the mirror. There are hundreds of thousands of atheists, and no two are alike. You are judging from a position of complete ignorance and that says more about YOU and your faith that it does about atheists.
The Reality of Life: You will only live for one extremely brief period of time before you die. When you die, you will no longer have the ability to interact with anything living. No living human knows, has known, or will ever know, what happens when you die. Live and let live.
What you said is very true. However we can delude ourselves into believing in our own immortality. Many people do!
And you know this how, Jim?
@devin Which part?
The second and third sentence. But I guess you already knew that.
http://www.youtube.com/user/crytogod?ob=0&feature=results_main good street preaching video!
For those who have not heard:
This is GREAT! Thanks for posting.
It's an amazing transformation to go from caring from yourself to caring for others. It never seemed to me that the religious right as a whole have ever gained that perspective. Shame it takes staring your own mortality to realize it. Best wishes to Mr. Dobson. Hope you've found peace.
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.