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.”
I am very glad to of watched this video of Pastor Ed's story and plan to investigate it more. I do so much believe in the fact that something unique happens to us when we pass to the other side. I do believe there is some type of God, whether it exists in the collective consciousness or whether there is a singular being that is called God, although I tend not to believe the later. I've never fit in within the confines of organized religion. It just doesn't fit me, or I cannot fit within it.
I cannot help but notice the amount of negative comments, which in this forum is to be expected I guess. I cannot help but wonder if the fingers typing those comments are fueled by self hate and loathing, fear, isolation, and just pure anger at one's self, or what society has tossed upon their heart and soul.
Having had this horrible disease cast upon Pastor Ed, should, I would think, make one count their blessings. I think what I got most out his words was "when you're not needed you lose part of your purpose in life." It causes me to pause, and reflect that many of my purposes are self serving; though not all of them are of self.
While watching the video something came to my mind. I go to a community college where I take all types of classes. Currently this semester I've noticed a man who uses an electric wheel chair. For some reason we seem to run into each other quite a bit, and I often times hold doors open for him.....At first he said that 'I can open the door on my own.' The next day or so, I held the door open for him, and said to him, that I extend this courtesy to everyone, male and female, it is not necessarily for you that I hold the door open, it is mostly for me. So I suppose there are many courtesies that are self serving.
I shall try not to live my life in anger, and try to be a conduit of whatever power that I believe exists that is beyond our current comprehension, and have faith that it will triumph in the end.
And for those 'haters' out there who may attempt to toss a myriad of negative comments against me or anyone else who has some kind of faith, your comments on serve to reinforce that faith.
Have a most wonderfully blessed day.
I've yet to find any organized religion that isn't filled to the brim with hypocrisy. But I am somewhat envious of those who do believe, they seem to posses a certain peace that's uniquely theirs, unfortunately, that's not me. This article reminds me of something I heard a long time ago. "For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't, no proof is possible."
"Having had this horrible disease cast upon Pastor Ed, should, I would think, make one count their blessings." Now why would God choose to bless other people, but not Pastor Ed? What did he do to deserve a slow, miserable death like ALS?
This is where I find most the people who need God in there lives.......on the comment page.
This is where I find the most people who claim they have God in their lives but are really just cruel, judgmental hypocrites.
This is where I find brainwashed military people who can't think without their commander's approval.
Has this man renounced the shameful politics of his past with the politician Falwell? Don't bother to whine about the Muslims when the Christianists are actually trying to do what some people falsely say native-born American Muslims would do.
I agree. Rick Santorum is always talking about "sharia law," but now he's trying to push his own evangelical law on the military AND the country.
I would say that would be between him and God.
This is a good comment. I bet he is struggling with those things of his past. As a Christian, one of the things that bothers me is megachurches (like his of 5,000 congregants) where the pastor does not devote his or herself to each of the congregants but loses touch with the personal nature of Jesus. I think this can lead to a lot of misguided decisions in a church and in a pastor. It seems that whenever a church is in the news for making political statements, it is always one of these huge churches where the congregation is blindly following a pastor. I don't think that is what Jesus wanted of His followers. It is encouraging to see Dobson learning that and wanting to pass it on to others so they can know what it really means to be a Christian.
It's good to see the sick left is on the job today.
Not all people who believe in "God" are religious. I find religion (for the most part) stuffy, restrictive and bent to serve man. I have no clue what God is, only that the more I understand about life the more rational the concept seems (ala Francis Collins).
Usually these discussions devolve into fingerpointing between Christians and Atheists; as if that in any way encompasses how I believe.
I discuss many of these issues on life, religion, and spirituality in my book - Tales form the East: Return of Ivanhoe
We are all dying from the time we are born, but I think Mr. Dobson is learning the difference between organized religion and faith.
To A Person of Name:
Your posts about your relationship with your god are powerful. I, too, have a close and personal relationship with god, and this morning, he told me to tell you he hates you.
When you stand shaking and crying before the Throne, remember to say something witty.
How about some proof-reading?
Great Article, dumb comments!
Dumb article. He can pray all he wants. It won't help. No one out there is going to hear him, cure him, or help him. No amount of hands laid on him, retarded religiosity, or adherence to the ten commandments (in lower case for a reason) is going to save him. Yet, other Christian idiots out there think they are "just so blessed" this morning because they aren't suffering like he is. Riddle me this: If your version of God is so great, why would he choose to "bless" some people while he allows others to suffer the miserable death that this guy is going to have? Hmmm? Yeah. I didn't think you 'd have a sensible answer. Get out of the Dark Ages, religious idiots.
thank you for that,people are just so disrespectful and dumb about everything it just boggles my mind. if one cant question his religion of fear of shaking its base ,then that is a bogus religion ,
It's not about being cured. It's about forgiveness. If he was to be cured, it would be a plus. Keep in mind that he was given 3-5 years to live and he currently on year 11. That in itself is a miracle in my view, maybe not yours though. As for why other people who are "religious" suffer, we live in a world of cause and effect. We can create our own suffering. The fact that we are born with a sinful nature no matter how good we try to be is enough to create this. Also the fact that God gave us free will I think also plays a role in this. As for why this preacher has to suffer. That is between him and God. All we can do as christians is pray for Gods will.
The opposite of Pascal's Wager:
How many Christians, when faced with impending death, will stay away from doctors, hospitals and medicine and let God's plan play out? And how many will betray their supposed faith in God by going to a hospital and seeking the help of man in the face of death.
I don't understand why these are incompatible unless directly prohibited by religious beliefs. You assume everyone who believes in a higher power shouldn't avail themselves of the world they live in. By your logic I should just sit in a puddle and wait for everything to happen to me.
If I understood what God was about I'd do it but since I don't I'll continue to pray for potatoes at the end of a hoe.
The point of the post is that Pascal's Wager is a card played by the faithful as proof of God – that when "non-believers" are on their deathbed they will reach out to a "God" for salvation and comfort.
Do you know what Pascal's wager is?
My point is that the same people who will hold a non-believer accountable for turning to spirituality on their death-bed sure don't have a problem – usually – turned to science themselves.
Any attempt to play the Pascal's Wager card by a person who seeks help from MAN in their times of need is a hypocritical act.
Put your faith into God – if its good enough for the rest of us, walk the walk. Pray your sickness away and see how that works for you.
Who's to say that God put knowledge in the hands of these doctors to heal people. That could be a possibility don't you think?
As I recall, one of Jesus's disciples was a physician. God may use doctors and medical science to answer someone's prayers for healing. I don't see this as a betrayal of faith at all.
This is how "God", the almighty physician, deals with disease:
In Leviticus 14, the Lord spoke to Moses about how to treat and cure leprosy - it is some of the dangedest, silliest hokum that you'd ever want to read. This was the LORD speaking, folks - the LORD - how dare anyone search for a better treatment!
Get two birds. Kill one. Dip the live bird in the blood of the dead one. Sprinkle the blood on the leper seven times, and then let the blood-soaked bird fly away. Next find a lamb and kill it. Wipe some of its blood on the patient's right ear, thumb, and big toe. Sprinkle seven times with oil and wipe some of the oil on his right ear, thumb and big toe. Repeat. Finally find another pair of birds. Kill one and dip the live bird in the dead bird's blood. Wipe some blood on the patient's right ear, thumb, and big toe. Sprinkle the house with blood 7 times. That's all there is to it!
The meaning of life is to find joy. The meaning of death is to remind us not to waste our time being distracted from the meaning of life. If god(s) exist, it makes little difference since they can only provide us with the tools and paths to finding joy, but it is we who must work and walk those paths.
"doctors game him ". Great spell checking there.
CNN seems to be pro-muslim and anti-christian... just an observation after viewing several months worth of "belief" articles.
The sheer presence of the "Belief Blog" here (US version) is evidence of a PRO christian stance. Just because Christians are waking up to reality doesn't mean CNN is anti-christian.
Then you must have missed this article you just replied to.
Because while at the onset of his illness, he references a struggle of faith, if you had read to the end of the article, you'd notice that his illness as deepened his relationship with God.
I think CNN is just against religion in general.
This pastor's reference point seems to be himself.
That's blasphemy .. God made Atheists!! :)
One more time:
ALS is one of the many proofs that there is no god. Hopefully, someday all the money currently being wasted on religion will be used to find the cure for ALS and cancer
This man's illness does not suggest that God does not exist. Let's see. If someone took statements you made and twisted them into a myriad of lies and false beliefs, to the point where your original message is completely lost, and he made lots of money unjustly in the process, would you worry about that person's health?
Unfortunately for all concerned, there is no god. It's tragic, but that's the whole point – life IS tragic. It is also glorious, precious and beautiful. Live it as it is, and without leaning on an invisible friend who cannot help you, and will not cure you. If there were a god, I think he (or she, or it) would have to be terribly cruel and stupid, and THAT is the greatest argument against believing in one.
Go on and live your life. Be free and be happy. You don't need god.
I'm not religious at all, and faith is faith as far as I'm concerned. Maybe if you Lego that Ego for a sec, you would realize that you can't prove there is no God. So essentially you live your life based on faith as well. You just believe in no God rather than the alternative. When one side can prove w/ out a doubt that the other side is wrong, then maybe you'll have something there, but for now, since you can't, how about you live your life w/out all the hate in your heart. Different strokes for different folks you know.
The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)
Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????
I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)
Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,
He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.
(References used are available upon request.)
Really? You stand on this planet revolving around one of 400 billion stars in one of 300 billion galaxies. The dead elements of the planet have formed this strange thing we call "life" that we have no real evidence of anywhere else and YOU have decided that this is "reality"? You have a lot of confidence in what "science" has learned in the last 200 years, don't you? But, go ahead. Say some more stupid things.
What we do know: (from the fields of astrophysics, nuclear physics, geology and the history of religion)
1. The Sun will burn out in 3-5 billion years so we have a time frame.
2. Asteroids continue to circle us in the nearby asteroid belt.
3. One wayward rock and it is all over in a blast of permanent winter.
4. There are enough nuclear weapons to do the same job.
5. Most contemporary NT exegetes do not believe in the Second Coming so apparently there is no concern about JC coming back on an asteroid or cloud of raptors/rapture.
6. All stars will eventually extinguish as there is a limit to the amount of hydrogen in the universe. When this happens (100 trillion years?), the universe will go dark. If it does not collapse and recycle, the universe will end.
7. Super, dormant volcanoes off the coast of Africa and under Yellowstone Park could explode catalytically at any time ending life on Earth.
Bottom line: our apocalypse will start between now and 3-5 billion CE. The universe apocalypse, 100 trillion years?
And based on the recent discovery of exo-planets, some kind of life will start or continue on some other planet at least until the Suns of these planets also die.
If belief was a last piece of culture addressing to-be-after-life or heaven then just be with it in the last day. No questioning.
Beyond it I assumed if we wanted to find the meaning of life, then we had to face the death first even timimg was a favor but we can learn from others going through.
Thanks, Ed, for allowing God and ALS to bring good into and through your life. Keep it up.
Almighty God does not explain himself to human beings.
Contrary to popular belief, we really do not deserve an explanation when things happen and we don't understand them.
READ the Bible for yourself and develop a relationship with God. HE really doesn't care what humans post on a CNN Blog.
HE does what HE wants to do and he has no one to answer to.
That's fine, but what you describe is no better than a cruel king from the dark ages. To bend to such a beings will just because he is powerful is immoral. Such concepts feed and rationalize classism and oppression. If it is so much a power play, such a god is not one to be followed and adored. I appreciate those who follow religion with the purpose of truly making the world a better place for all, but I abhor those who use religion to rationalize self-interest, whether it is choosing groups to subjugate or count up points to get into an alleged glorious place after you have had an opportunity to better the world.
if you knew the scriptures as well as most atheists then you'd arrive at the same conclusion, that it's rubbish, immoral and exactly what you'd expect from 1st century bronze age Palestinians who had no regard for historical accuracy and lived in darkness, scientifically speaking.
Eric, you obviously don't know our Almighty God very well. He explains EXACTLY why He does or does not do something. And when we get to know Him by means of His own word, through His SON, Jesus Christ, found in the Bible, we understand, perfectly!
No historical accuracy? It is one of the most accuratly historical books written. Archealogy has agreed with the bible on every point, where the bible says there is a city there is a city. Also as for your claim of us not reading the bible as much as atheists that is simply not true. I am studying thhe bible everday in order to become a pastor. I can see where u get the idea of immorality but that is not what the bible is about.
I'm a Christian and I don't need "answers," because Jesus is the only answer.
If the only question is "Jewish Superheros for 100 Points".
"Jesus is the only answer". Maybe that's why every time you fundies try to run something, it turns into a total goat rodeo. We'd all still be living in mud huts and blaming evil spirits for disease if it were up to people like you.
Engineer. Is it wise to imply someone's views are foolish, when no one's side can be proven or disproven?
Engineer in Raleigh, you should get your facts straight. Catholic monks and priests have contributed huge advancement in science. The problem is that nobody wants to check facts before spouting out untruths. Google Big Bang Theory Georges Lemaitre and Gregor Mendel just to name a couple. Please quit spreading the lies.
Some people on this board (Tumad) need to look up the word "empiricism". Science is empirical. It can be proven or disproven based on a fancy concept called "evidence". Religion (faith), on the other hand, is not based on evidence, rather, it's based on the lack of evidence. There is no end to the amount of B.S. you can take on "faith". Sure, you fundies might laugh at Mormon's magic underwear, or scientologist's belief that thetans used to live on earth, but they have no less evidence than you have for a virgin birth, or a talking snake.
Contrast that with science, where, when I say "germs cause disease", I can actually produce evidence for it.
The sad thing is that fundies know all this. That's why they won't go off and start their own magical kingdom of Jesusland... Because they know they would all be dying of disease, starvation, and holy wars if the grown ups weren't there to look after them.
Yeah! To hell with things like "Truth", "logic", "reason", and "evidence"!
You live in Oklahoma, don't you? I know you do, because your lack of intellect is showing.
You should apply to be a brain surgeon then, because when you apply for the examination, you know all the answers to the questions: just write down 'jesus'.
Dear "Engineer in Raleigh": Are you speaking of the same "science" that one day gives us pontification and the next another big "oops!"? If you think your simplistic dismissal of religion wowed anybody, think again.
There is no God. The idea was manufactured by men to keep people from killing each other.
specifically from killing the rich.
Back to the video games.
You read this article and that is all you have to say?
And look how well that has worked out. Ergo, your Username is quite apt. You are indeed wrong.
When I look at nature around me and its profound intricacies, there is just no way I can believe that there is no Creator.
Fortunately, God does exist. You can see it if you really look.
Unfortunately, man seems to make a mess of what God's message really is. God wants us to care about each other in a heavenly way, not the "bite each other, knife in the back" way in which a lot of us live. Live like God wants us to live and you would see a much better world.
As the Bible says, the man who doesn't believe in God is a fool.
Prove there is no God and then you will have the upper hand on those who believe, until then how about you allow people to live their lives how they deem fit. By the way, what happens in a person's life that makes them want to hate on other's that have a different belief system than theirs ?
"Prove there is no God and then you will have the upper hand on those who believe"
I can prove there is no god with logic. If god is suppose to be all powerful and omnipotent then when you meet your god, ask it to make a mountain that even it can't move. If it refuses, then that means it is limited in its power, because it can't make such a thing. If it does make the mountain that even it can't move, then how can it claim to be all powerful because a mountain is more powerful than it. See. I just proved your god doesn't exist.
Dear "Veggiedude": If that's what passes for logic in your head you might want to stop smoking veggies.
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.