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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. brock Carson

    having faith does not mean he will heal you if it is not his will what we should all make sure is that your soul is heal and ready for him flesh passes away.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • sam stone

      or....live your life the way you feel is best and not worry about the rest

      March 13, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  2. Kashic

    We create what? I don't recall making the earth, the trees anything other then my kids lol. This seems to be about his own journey. And as far as science and reason all that says is the universe is following the laws of physics.

    March 1, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  3. Helene

    Mr. Dobson is living a lesson about the journey between thinking about God and being in contact with the mystery and power of God's most precious gifts, faith and life. Faith and life have two parts each, those being the internal and external, and the worldly and everlasting. No one, no matter what mentality, can escape these realities. My prayers go to Pastor Dobson and his family, and for the reconcilliation of the whole world.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  4. joe trolly

    With or without god meaning and usefullness are important for happiness. I am touched that he found new meaning and usefullness during his time of loss.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  5. Richard

    He's not a pastor, He's a Catholic, that's calle a Priest. Just another example of a world that erroneously believes Catholicism and Christianity are the same thing.

    March 1, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Kelly

      Sorry Richard but you are mistaken. Calvary Church is not a Catholic Church, and Dr. Dobson is not a priest. Priests are not married. Catholic churches do have pastors who are priests and are the administrative head and spiritual leader of the parish.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Cam

      Richard: 1) Dobson pastored at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids. That is not a Roman Catholic church. What would a Priest be doing leading a Protestant church? 2) Roman Catholics are Christians. There may be nominal RCs who don't practice their faith, and there may be RCs who believe (or practice) things contrary to essential Christian doctrines, but the same can be said for Protestant or Orthodox Christians.

      Please use that thing in your head God gave you called a brain, if not all the time, at least before you decide to write silly things in a public space.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  6. dantresomi

    it's not death that he is struggling with, its not having power anymore. That's what scares him. And to be honest, that was religion is about: the consolidation of power. He said it himself that it was a shock to his system. It doesn't surprise me though.

    March 1, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • jimmy

      power did you even listen. what he miss was been needed. that's is what happens to all our elders and people who retired. they don't feel needed like they are not importan anymore, not power.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  7. Lorraine

    Oh my, sorry everyone, I did not mean to talk about Mr. Dobson as if he were already gone from us, but the best is still to come with people like him giving us his greatness, and, I wish for him the whole world of happiness, and grace while he does the work for the Creator, YHWH, to give it to us all is what Mr. Dobson wants to leave behind, how considerate of him, and how blessed we are to have someone like him with us, for good people are so hard to find these days.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
  8. Mr Everyman

    Fosusing on dreams, out of body experiences or the hope of that and, the Garden to come may ease his physical ending.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
  9. Alex

    @momoya – Wow! I've read quite a few articles from the belief blog as well as commentary; it speaks volumes that I've seen your posts on every one of those – an atheist who's constantly reading about something s/he doesn't believe...I'll stop here and let you deal with your insecurities.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  10. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 29, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • CC

      Are you kidding me? It should be the only way to think. Religions are the bane of humanity! I hope one day you see how wrong you are. If your passing your religion on to kids you are doing them a great disservice. I should stop preaching to you because it makes just as bad as you are. FYI prayers don't change anything. You change things.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
    • cageordie

      Right, fairy tales prepare kids better for life. But it's better for them if they learn to tell reality from fables.

      March 1, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • jim

      Prayer does nothing. Action changes things.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  11. Gary

    I met Dr. Dobson, years ago, through a mutual friend, who was hosting him. He was a warm, personable man, despite being at the top of his career. My heart goes out to him as God teaches him humbling lessons to pass to the rest of us. He has much, yet, to teach us, as he passes this test of faith. God Bless him and his loved ones and all who he has touched.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  12. Ian

    Lorraine, for me his words reflect a state of depression – something which I personally cannot reconcile with a religious way of looking outwards. I don't know of him otherwise, only from the above article and video and I see nothing but ssomeone who is concerned with himself rather than the wonder of awareness.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • mommatocharlie

      There is absolutely nothing in Christianity that says a person will be free of depression if he looks outward. Depression is, in most people, a chemical imbalance in the brain, which has no bearing on how a person looks at life.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  13. Lorraine

    momoya, How much more insensitive can an atheist be? I know you would have the answer to this question. Lighten up a bit, its ok. Mr. Dobson left here with honors especially towards others. I am sure he will be missed, but more so, remembered of good thoughts.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • momoya

      I don't know what you're talking about, but I don't think anybody can ever be as insensitive as the god of the bible. Anybody who builds and sustains a never-ending lake of fiery torture for those he doesn't like is automatically insensitive.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • alfranken

      Momoya, You're trolling on a story that people of faith are sensitive about. You truly don't take the Bible literally but yet you express it as it is and try to demonize it. You're a joke of a person.
      I, believe that Jesus is my personal savior but I'm not even close to your standard mill of a Christian that you like to stereotype. after I smoke my bong and finish my six pack, I'll be more than happy to shove my boot up your...

      So go play with yourself

      February 29, 2012 at 1:25 am |
    • momoya

      Well, Jesus was all about shoving his boot up the @ss of elderly women, so you've certainly got his approval. Hey, remember when he had the apostles shank that one guy in Mark chapter eleventeen?

      The bible is a book of myth that NOBODY should take literally. Especially people with hobbies like drinking, drugs, and kicking @ss for their Lord.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  14. Ian

    I ask myself why God should have told him to become a pastor – it obviously wasn't a very good suggestion. I think, listening to his tribulation, that he's caught in his own tight little world.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Lorraine

      Ian, In actuality, Mr. Dobson's world was not tight at all, it was rather broad. And his being a preacher or pastor was a gift of attribute to a vast group of people who go through these kind of situations everyday. For Mr. Dobson to share, and give to others of his experience with death, just as he did with his goodness of life is a great contribution to us all. To help us to keep the faith even after all goes wrong for us, it gives us that glimpse of hope of there being something much more bigger than we are here on this earth right now, and something even more rewarding, and that is to leave others with a guide to do, and be the best you can be, all the way to the end, its worth it to leave here with love, and a smile in ones heart that you did reach or give something of value to many others along the way. Giving all that he had left instead of regrets, was precious, and most thoughtful of him. Mr. Dobson was a brave, and compassionate, and wise man towards his fellowman, and left a promising legacy to a bright beginning 'to cherish life, and others'. What more can anyone ask for?

      February 28, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  15. gnarlydad

    The headline of this piece is quite misleading: Pastor Dobson is not rethinking what it means to be a Christian, he has been forced by his illness to become a pastor rather than a preacher.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:14 am |
    • Chris Chiapetta

      Well said gnarlydad. You are right. I wish preachers actually pastored more. It's exactly what Jesus taught.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  16. Pastor Dave Fpgderud

    Thank-you my friend. Your story brings back memories of my wonderful wife Pat who went to be with the Lord on Dec 26, 1998.
    ( cancer ). I would love to meet you some day. I live in Beloit, Wisconsin. Phone:
    608-365-0365.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
  17. EVE101

    Throughout 2011, I read through Dr. Dobson's Prayer and Promises book with my friend who was dying of cancer. The writings brought both of us comfort and hope. My friend died quoting scripture and trusting God. Thank you Dr. Dobson for sharing your journey with us. Lorna and you are in my prayers.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
  18. Tom Eggebeen

    A thoughtful reflection on one's man's journey. As I read the story, several thoughts: 1) large churches change the gospel. 2) an answer-based faith is very different than a question-based faith 3) mortality remains the great mystery from which we run, until it catches us!

    February 27, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  19. Mike

    Does anyone know what Michaelwg is talking about?

    February 26, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
  20. Jeff

    The Hey Guys Post was balanced. Those that hang there "in no God" on their intellect and science need to ponder that we know 4 dimensions. If there were only 3 we were aware the one missing would be totally unknown to us and if someone were to state their was that dimension........they would be labeled as "believing in fairy tales". Do you see where I am going with this? There is a lot more to this. And if there is a God He authored all things and science as well. It is just that we are discovering it bit by bit.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
    • momoya

      What!?!?!? Almost everyone agrees that we operate in four dimensions: up/down, side-to-side, forward/backward(depth), and time.

      February 27, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • CC

      FYI fictional characters don't create things. We create them. BIG DIFFERENCE. By the way we already know of 4 dimensions. X(side/side) Y (up/down) Z(depth) and time. Read a book other then the bible and you mind will be free of this religious bane. OH wait sorry momoya you wrote the same thing. lol

      February 29, 2012 at 10:21 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.