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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. SHOUT NAME OF SALVATION

    BEST THING A CHRISTIAN COULD EVER DO IS THIS...I READ IN BIBLE IF YOU LOVE GOD YOU WILL OBEY HIS COMMANDMENTS TO PREACH GOSPEL...IF YOU LOVE A PERSON YOU WILL NOT SHARE CHRIST WITH ALL YOUR HEART ON IT! PREACH AWAY HOW ONE CAN BE SAVED...HOW CAN THEY UNDERSTAND IF YOU DO NOT PREACH AND BE FILLED WITH SPIRIT....SHOW LOVE TO EVERYONE JESUS2020.COM

    February 19, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  2. jim

    The Moral Majority??? THE WORLD WILL BE WELL RID OF HIM!!!!

    February 19, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • Jesus Loves You

      Well morality comes from the ten commandmens.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  3. Tim

    "The videos tow the line between a dark look at a dying man's life and an uplifting glimpse at someone who exudes clarity."
    What on earth does "tow the line" mean here? Maybe the author trying to say "toe the line" but this is not an appropriate us of that expression either. But apart from that, an interesting article.

    February 19, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  4. SHOUT NAME OF SALVATION

    CHRISTIANS BE FILLED WITH POWER OF HOLY SPIRIT AND DONT STOP PREACHING GOSPEL, CONFESS YOUR SINS, AND TURN FROM SINS.......NONBELEIVERS RECEIVE JESUS AND GO TO JESUS2020.COM TO RECIEVE HIM

    February 19, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  5. 1fender

    If you want to see an insoirational ALS story, google "art In the Blink Of an Eye" or "the Blinking artist" to find Tom Nelson. Quite amazing and awe inspiring! Tom is my best friend has had ALS for 12 years in since diagnosed. He cannot move anythig except his eyes. He is on a respirator that breathes fror him and has a full time nurse for homecase 24/7. But he is still a real person who contributes some wonderful art drawings with only his eyes using a special computer.

    This preacher is lucky to still have that much mobility with ALS at this point. Still driving after 10 years? WOW! Not everyone is so lucky.

    February 19, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  6. SHOUT NAME OF SALVATION

    TWO MEMBERS FROM THE BAND KORN GOT SAVED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AMEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! YES AMEN LOVE THAT S TORY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! JESUS2020.COM IF YOU WANNA GET SAVED

    February 19, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  7. SHOUT NAME OF SALVATION

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fs7i_ckEHVA GO HERE BRIAN WELCH TESTIFIES ON CBN HOW HE WENT FROM BAND KORN TO GET SAVED ANYONE WANNA GET SAVED JESUS2020.COM SHOUT NAME OF JESUS AMEN!

    February 19, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  8. SHOUT NAME OF SALVATION

    http://youtu.be/Fs7i_ckEHVA BRIAN WELCH GETS SAVED!!!!!!!!!! FROM THE BAND KORN!

    February 19, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  9. SHOUT NAME OF SALVATION

    LOOOK UP BRIAN WELCH GETS SAVED ON YOUTUBE. KORN BAND MEMBER WHO GOT SAVED!!!!!!!!!! AMEN!!!!!!!!!!! LIVE IN PWOER OF HOLYS PIRIT. BE FILLED WITH HOLY SPIRIT AND PREACH THE GOSPEL TO EVERYONE JESUS2020.COM

    February 19, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • tallulah13

      What is a "pirit"? Also, your caps lock is stuck.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • keyser

      If he's immortal like he's preached what is he so worried about. Looks to me like he's realized, like Mother Teresa, that this is not a practice run.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • SHOUT NAME OF SALVATION

      KEYSER WE NOW HAVE SALVATION IN OUR HEARTS AND WE MUST PROCLAIM IT TO YOU CUZ IF YOU DO NOT HAVE RECEIVE CHRIST AS LORD THEN YOU ARE ONLY DECIDING FOR YOURSELF THAT YOU THINK YOU DONT NEED HEALING OR CLEANSING FROM YORU SINS AND WITHOUT CHRIST YOU WILL PERISH FOREVER AND ONLY YOU MAKE THIS DECISION. JESUS WANST YOU TO BE SAVED AND WE ARE TRYING TO SHOW YOU HOW TO. GO TO JESUS2020.COM TO SEE HOW BE SAVED

      February 19, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  10. Benjamin

    Excellent story. "What can I do with the limited time I have?" That is a profound question.

    February 19, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • Paul

      But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  11. SHOUT NAME OF SALVATION

    HAHA BRIAN WELCH FROM THE BAND KORN TESTIFIES ON YOUTUBE HOW HE GOT SAVED. GVO THERE AND TYPE IN BRIAN WELCH GETS SAVED AND HE TESTIFES OF HOW HE WAS SAVED AND DELIVERED OF DRUG ADDICTIONAND GOT HEALED HIM. I LOVE IT!!!!!!!!!!!! AMEN!!!!!!!!!!!!! GAVE HIS LIFE TO JESUS CHRIST AND HE WAS HEALED...LOVE IT! AMEN!!!!!!!!!!! WANNA GET SAVED.....GO TO JESUS2020.COM

    February 19, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Don Juan

      Moron alert.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • SHOUT NAME OF SALVATION

      THANKS DON. JESUS LOVES YOU. GUESS WHAT AT END OF DAY YOUR HEART IS STILL DISASTISSIFED. YOU SHOULD CHECK OUT YOUTUBE.COM/USER/CRYTOGOD AWESOME STREET PREACHER!!!!!!!!!!!! I WANT YOU TO HAVE JESUS AND BE SAVED TOO DEAR! MAYBE YOU ARE HURTING.......BUTDONT LET DEMONS CONTROL YOU! LET JESUS CONTROL YOU IN YOUR HEART. THINK OF WORST GUILT YOU EVER DONE.....WELL JESUS WANTS TO TAKE IT AWAY IF YOU LET HIS PWOER COME IN YOUR HEART SURRENDER ON KNEESS AND GIVE HEART TO JESUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! KLOVE.COM AND JESUS2020.COM

      February 19, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I think the caps lock and complete lack of coherence gave that away, Don.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  12. Jim

    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.

    February 19, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • SciGuy

      Not so. The apostle Paul was given a glimpse of it while living, as was the apostle John. Read the bible for their eyewitness accounts.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Saul of Tarsus fell off his horse and met a dead guy who gave him special knowledge. No really!

      And you fell for that?

      February 19, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • Jim

      @SciGuy References?..... That's rhetorical..... because they're aren't any.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • SciGuy

      Tallujah, I'm not referring to that incident specifically, but to another that Paul had where he was taken to heaven. But your incident is another good one, and illustrative of a strong piece of evidence for the truthfulness of Jesus's resurrection. Saul of Tarsus was an intelligent, sane, highly gifted Jew who excelled in his Judaism. He was actively working for the demise of this group of Christ followers, even to the point of killing them. Then he has this incident of which you speak, and from that time forward lived his life and ultimately gave his life preaching the message he formerly despised. Those who deny the reality if the resurrection of Jesus have to deal with the phenomenal conversion of Saul to Paul.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • SciGuy

      Jim, 2nd Corinthians 12 for Paul. The book of Revelation for John.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • jim

      SciGuy (is that a joke?), you must be the most gullible, dumbest person in the world!

      February 19, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • SciGuy

      Jim, thank you for jumping immediately to the ad hominem tactic and revealing to us all that you lack any substantive material for the discussion.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • tallulah13

      SciGuy, ALL of Saul of Tarsus' religious authority comes from the fact that he fell off his horse and met a dead man (no, really!). There was no proof of this, only the word of Saul of Tarsus. Only the most gullible or desperate would fall for this sort of con, especially since over 2000 years have passed and there still isn't any proof of any of the supernatural claims of the bible.

      February 19, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  13. sandy f

    Ed,
    Our family recently lost a beloved brother to ALS. He was a believer which made all of the difference in his passing for me.It is quite an equalizer. It shows what is really important. Though cliche, family and relationships are paramount to "things" to attain in this world. Your story will live longer than you and will always help someone dealing with this disease. Don't look back, you aren't going in that direction. Praise God!

    February 19, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I'm sorry you lost your loved one. ALS is a terrible thing and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  14. SHOUT NAME OF SALVATION

    LET EVERYONE GET SAVED GODLOVESTHEWORLD.COM

    February 19, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  15. Boruch N. Hoffinger

    Did you know that plants communicate with each other and human beings?
    'Hidabroot.com' 'Hidabroot.org.'

    February 19, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  16. NorthropP61

    "For the living know that they shall die but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love and their hatred and their envy is all perished, neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun." – Ecc 9: 5,6

    Did you catch the part that says, "the dead know not any thing"?

    February 19, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Interesting. Thank you for pointing that out.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  17. Reality

    Dobson also suffers from the Three B Syndrome i.e being Bred, Born and Brainwashed in religion, in his case, Christianity. Said syndromes are based on the hallucinations, myths, embellishments and lies of the founders of said religions. And what is almost hilarious about this is how we have bought into this fictional stuff for so long.

    Some observations:

    JC's family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 "And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.")

    Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by most contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann's conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694.

    Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher/magic man (or Dobson) would do or say?

    February 19, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Paul

      "So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher/magic man (or Dobson) would do or say?"

      You may want to ask him that when you see him.

      For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”— and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.

      So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • sandy f

      clearly you do not know the love of God. You have let "religion' jade you. Don't follow that. "You" and you alone must come to his saving grace. I shall pray for you.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • ......

      this is copy paste bull sh it thoughts by someone other than reality. Hit report abuse on all of it

      February 19, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  18. Jim

    @devin Haha... Touche! 2nd sentence) Don't believe in ghosts. 3rd) I said "Live and let live"... What's the issue with that?

    February 19, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  19. TJ

    What a beautiful man and a message so desperatly needed today. Based upon the comments that I've read here so few understand it.

    February 19, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Don Juan

      Actually, we do understand. We understand the bigotry and hatred that a person like him stands for. You...not so much.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • WhatWhatWhat?

      No, you're right, we don't understand severe religious delusion at all. It's not necessary, and it's a waste of time. It's hard to understand how anyone could be fooled into believing any of that stuff, especially the part about the guy riding a horse in the clouds pulling a sword out of his mouth and killing everyone he doesn't like. It's absolutely delusional.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • PLEASE READ

      I agree with you TJ. God is love. Love is God. HATE=FEAR. Nothing stirs up more hatred/fear more than a belief blog. It's probably the first thing a non-believer reads on cnn.com is the belief bog. Ironic? DO NOT BE AFRAID TO BELIEVE. ALLOW YOURSELF THE GIFT. IT'S THERE FOR US GOD GAVE HIS OWN SON FOR US. When you die in the last moments it's only love you will wish is with you and also waiting for you.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  20. Jim

    @devin HA!... "The second and third sentence. But I guess you already knew that." Touche! Sorry, I wasn't trying to be rhetorical, my apologies. Anyway... 2nd Sentence) I just don't believe in ghosts but I reserve the right to change my mind if I see one; 3rd Sentence) Well, the 3rd sentence was "Live and let live" so I don't know how you can really disagree with the "Golden Rule" but feel free to elaborate.

    February 19, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • devin

      Actually, "Live and let live" was your fourth sentence. Then again, my eyes are bad so perhaps one of the periods was dirt on my monitor.

      I guess what I always find fascinating about the rhetoric from the agnostic/atheist crowd is the extent of their (your) dogmatism in KNOWING there is nothing else. Granted, I can't PROVE the existence of God, but the evidence through nature and conscience SCREAM for it.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • keyser

      If we're immortal like he's preached what is he worried about?

      February 19, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Devin, the only thing screaming for god are people who don't wish to take the time to learn the real causes for natural phenomena. You should do a little research. Of course, maybe you'd end up like me. The more I learned about the universe, the fewer places I could find the need for a god. Eventually, I realized that belief in god was merely a habit, formed because I was raised in a culture where christianity was the norm. It was kind of sad when realized I don't believe in god, but I'm a more honest person for it.

      February 19, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • devin

      Actually, I have done "a little research". So have numerous scientists who would also disagree with your conclusions. Ultimately , your faith in naturalism is no less of faith than my Christian beliefs.

      February 19, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Devin, please show me the proof that "the evidence through nature and conscience SCREAM" for the existence of god. Just the cold hard facts. Not the personal interpretation of data, not personal anecdotes. Let's see the cold hard numbers, the verifiable, peer reviewed evidence that the universe needs a god.

      February 19, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Devin, please show me the proof that "the evidence through nature and conscience SCREAM" for the existence of god. Just the cold hard facts. Not the personal interpretation of data, not personal anecdotes. Let's see the cold hard numbers, the verifiable, peer reviewed evidence that the universe needs a god.

      I believe in things that exist. You believe in something for which there has NEVER been any proof, thus making your position the one that is completely without foundation. I don't need faith to believe in that which can be observed, reproduced and verified.

      February 19, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Ack. Double post. I thought I stopped it before it had a chance to go online. Bummer.

      February 19, 2012 at 7:33 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.