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 feel God was showing him that he could use him with 5,000 years ago (well state) and just one by one now (in sickness). Both ways, he is a vessel for God. No matter what he felt inside, God was still there. It's so difficult during suffering to keep that in mind. God is still there and can use us to reach out to others in sickness and health. Even if one is bedridden, they will effect another and God may be testing that person in how they treat a bedridden person. What you do for him, you do for Jesus. There is no separation between man and God. But, suffering sure makes you feel it. It's a huge test of faith going through battles of life. It tests everything in you. Like Job, this man never wavered. May God bless him and those he has touched greatly..
TRUTH & KNOWLEDGE: HOW ONE SERVES, OR DO FOR YHWH THE KING, IS BY HONORING HIS 'LAW' THAT IS OUR 'LIFE' TO PROLONG IT, FOR OUR OWN GOOD, HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS, AND PEACE, AND THERE IS NO OTHER SAVIOR, AND REDEEMER AS TAUGHT IN ISAIAH 49V26, ISA.60V16, AND IN DUET 5, NOTHING SHOULD BE PUT BEFORE YHWH. IN ZECHARIAH 14V9, HE TEACHES US THAT THERE IS ONLY 'ONE' STRONG ONE YHWH OUR CREATOR, NO ONE ELSE IS WITH HIM IN ISAIAH 40V18,25, ISA.44V24-27. THE STORY OF jesus is nowhere PROPHESIED in the so called OT, this is IDOLATRY, PEOPLE HAVE BEEN MISLEAD. IN EXODUS 4V22,23, THE ONLY SON OF YHWH (GOD) IS 'ISRAEL', THE CHOSEN PEOPLE, AND THERE CANNOT BE (TWO) FIRSTBORN SONS THINK PEOPLE, USE YOUR OWN MINDS, READ GEN.-MALACHI, AND DO NOT BE MISLEAD BY PASTORS, PRIEST, ELDERS, NOR BY THE NT (NOT TRUE), THIS WAS PROPHESIED IN DEUT.32V17, THAT THE FUTURE GENERATIONS WILL DO STRANGE GODS RAISED '(NEWLY)' UP NOT OF THE COVENANT, OF ABRAHAM, ISSAC, OR JACOB. AND PROPHESIED IN THE FUTURE LATTER DAYS OF THE 4TH KINGDOM, DAN.2V40. THE VISION OF DANIEL 11V39, OF CHRISTIANITY, AND DANIEL 11V43, OF ISLAM THESE & OTHER RELIGIOUS IDOLATRY THAT ARE NOT OF YHWHS SPIRITUALITY, AND RIGHTEOUSNESS, AND PEACE FOR ALL, NOT JUST FOR SOME; BUT ALONG WITH THE IN DIFFERENCE, THE GREED, POVERTY, AND HATRED, OF THIS SO CALLED CIVILIZATION IN OUR WORLD TODAY. AND IT HAS BEEN THIS WAY FOR OVER 2000 YEARS, AND NO RELIGIONS HAS STOPPED THESE PESTILENSES YET, RELIGIONS ARE NOT OF THE TRUTH FROM YHWH. YHWH HAS NEVER CHANGED HIS WORDS, NOR HIS LAW, FOR HE CHANGES NOT, WRITTEN IN MALACHI 3V6. WAKE UP, MANY ARE, ISAIAH 59, AND 52. ALL NATIONS SHALL AWAKE IN JEREMIAH 16V14-21.
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airforce1990, Where in the book have you been told that our righteousness is like rags, probably over in the NT(not true), for all YHWH asks for us is to do the law of righteousness, 10 commandments Exodus 20, the sabbath day of rest of YHWH, Leviticus 23, and the real passover in Exodus, 12, and peace of YHWH, in the book of remembrance the true name of the so called OT, as YHWH called it in Malachi 3v16. He says in Isaiah 49v26, and in Isaiah 60v16, that He is our only Savior, and Redeemer, and in Isaiah 43v13, He says no man can ever be delivered from out of His hands. This law has never changed from the Creator YHWH as He says in Malachi 3v6, and in Judges 2v1-3, so that we are not mislead. Read Genesis – Malachi for the real truth, and if you can show me where YHWH the Creator says that jesus is His son, the only son I read about is in Exodus 4v22,23, and its Israel the chosen people, and if the story of jesus is prophesied anywhere in the OT by His prophets, let me know for YHWH does nothing without them, as taught in Amos 3v7.
Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God! Look to Him and be saved, all you ends of the earth! See Him crucified, for sinners slain. Are you washed in His blood? Are you safe in Christ? Or are you wandering without God and without hope in the world?
I am definitely wandering without God but indeed have much hope.
I weep for your ignorance.
Michael1, If you could show me where jesus is said to be the blood, the son of YHWH prophesied anywhere in the so called OT, truly named the 'book of remembrance' in Malachi 3v16, by YHWH through any of His prophets, as said by YHWH the King, and Creator that He does nothing without His prophets in Amos 3v7. Even the whole story of jesus is not prophesied in the so called OT. But Isaiah the prophet of YHWH was able to prophesied the prophet Jeremiah 200 years earlier than Jeremiah came about who was in the 6th century, and Isaiah was in the 8th. Therefore, where is this name jesus prophesied by any of the prophets in the OT, or where is the story of jesus. For, YHWH the Creator says in Exodus 4v22,23 that 'Israel' the chosen people is His 'son' and His 'firstborn' there cannot be two firstborn sons can there? There's no mention of a son named jesus, and many scriptures such as Isa.53,49,9, that many christians, and other religions (pagan, idols) are saying that these scriptures are jesus, but all I see written there is the servant, the elect, or the 'seed' of David who will reign, along with the Branch, and Arm of YHWH in Jeremiah 23,1-8, and all is called YHWH(Lord) Our Righteousness, which is already here with us today in progress; as the messenger stated by YHWH, through His prophet, that's written in Malachi 3, and again in Jeremiah 33v14-26, of the new kingdom called YHWH (Lord) Our Righteousness. Another future prophecy by the prophet of YHWH is in Jeremiah 31v31-40, a renewed covenant that the 'law' will be put in our inward parts, and in our hearts by YHWH, (future). Note: The Only Savior, and Redeemer we have is YHWH, for He tells us that in Isaiah 49v26, and Isaiah 60v16, Isaiah 43v11. And in Zechariah 14v9, there is only One Strong One, and it is YHWH is what He teaches us through His prophet Zechariah, and there is no one else with Him, as written in Isaiah 40v18,25. There is no son, no both, nor trinity, this is not of YHWH, its religion idolatry, to confirm in Isaiah 44v24-27, He tells us that He was alone, in the creation of all.
sam stone, Also, people can be righteous without religion, I agree with that too, but to have this righteousness for (all) in the world, now that is the law of YHWH, the Almighty to organize for us, and He has, and that is with His commandments, and His ordinances, they are of peace and right. This will stop the in difference, greed, poverty, etc.. and hate in the world for everyone.
First, the Bible tells us that our own righteousnesses are as filthy rags. We can't be righteous without Jesus Christ. So, you're wrong on that point Lorraine.
sam stone, yes jesus is a religion, idolatry, and pagan, I agree. And for centuries since legalized in 311bce, Constantine it, and all of the other religions has been straying many away from the true law of life, the commandments, and is why we have mayhem all over the world, these religions has not made anything better for our world in 2000 years, its only gotten worst. So, somethings not right about them, and won't be right either if people continue running from the truth of the real Creator of life YHWH, the spiritual One of righteousness, and peace, equality, and how to live, eat, and do right for all not just some, religion, doing wrong by others, and selfishness is the in differences, greed, hate, poverty, of this world, .
JUST LOOK AT THIS LAZY, MALNUTRITION, SKINNY, OUT OF SHAPE DUDE. HE WAS RELYING ON HIS GOD TO HAVE A HEALTHY LIFE BUT HIS GOD TURN HIM DOWN. IF HE WOULD LISTEN TO HIS DOCTOR, HE WOULD HAVE A LONG ,HEALTHY LIFE. GUYS LIKE HIM CAUSE HEALTHY CARE COST SKYROCKET EVERY YEAR
JEN, His God is not YHWH, therefore, its Idolatry, pagen, and not of the true Almighty Creator YHWH. And if many were not turned from the truth of the law of YHWH in Exodus 20, and His statues, and ordinances, the sabbath, the day of rest in Leviticus 23, and the passover in Exodus 12, and to eat right, then many would have had lived a healthy, and prolonged life, as stated in Deut.32v45-47. By, living right, doing right, and eating right, by one another is what YHWH is about, His the most High is of spirituality of righteousness, and His peace. We are to live by His commandments, this is our "life' and what eliminates premature death, YHWH knows whats good for us, and we have been strayed away from it doing, and living wrong, not of righteousness, and peace, full of in differences, greed, and hate, poverty, and much more selfishness of wrong doing.
..... A sower went out to sow, and as he sowed some seeds fell.....
They were born to be gardeners
They where asked to take care of the garden
We are the gardeners and we need to tend to the garden
The garden is the world internal and external
It is the life the makes the flowers grow to people next to you.
We need to think of all and not just what matter for this moment to us.
We want to control who, what we are and do, but we need to step out of this for the garden to grow.
Mark, yes this is so true, and is what YHWH the Creator of all life wants, and has asked us all to do by one another. To live righteously, and of peace. Many religions has been here for centuries and nothings getting any better but worst. Nothing but in differences, and poverty, greed, etc., total selfishness.
The Holy Trinity must be very proud of Rev. Dobson for his courage. If his ALS is much like Stephen Hawking's case of it. Rev. Dobson may still be able to speak through a speech synthesizer. I hope he'll do that when he loses his natural voice, because the world needs to hear what he tells it about what he's going through. Christ rewards his followers who cope patiently with crosses he lets them carry.. That's why Jamie Owens-Collins sang, "The bitter tears you've tasted will be diamonds in your crown."
God gave him what he deserved, right?
My brother Sam Stone Christianity is not a religion, it is a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. The only way you can understand this is to read the Word of God. If you have never read the Word of God, you will never understand this. Because God is a Spirit, those that worship Him, must Worship in spirit and in truth from the Book of John 4chpv24. As long as you do not know Jesus, you will always write about something you know nothing of. The majority of the people on this site always write about something they heard about. Have you ever read the bible and asked for understanding? The Lord Jesus said if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a ditch. Get out of the ditch and get a understanding. All those that call on the name of Jesus will be saved!
if it is not a religion, do churches lose their tax exempt status?
if god is a spirit, why do you assign it a gender?
elijah....free people do not need to be saved
so I've read the bible and i still agree with sam stone.... like 100%
Elijah34, People have been doing christianity legalized in 311bce from Constantine, or following jc, or the good ship jesus, look it up, and see what it really was, and for centuries, nothing has gotten any better in this world, maybe for some, this is the in difference, greed, poverty, wars, children with guns, children getting shot down from hatred, (the florida incident), selfishness, and hate, etc..so, something is wrong here. Idolatry, paganism, is what these religions are, designed for gain, and control, and of the divisions of people, and is why nothing will get any better as long as it is not of YHWH the Creator of life, Isaiah 49v26, Isaiah 60v16, the only One, Exodus 20, the commandments to do right, then there is no profit from it.
Elijah – I'm with agnosticwinner. I've read the bible several times in various translations and versions and I agree with agnostic and with sam. Rather presumptuous of you to assume that sam has not read the bible. Remember that study that came out recently that showed non-religious people had a better understanding of the bible and chrisitanity than its practioners? That better understanding usually is what leads us away from religion and towards reason.
Are you by any a Thiemite?
I meant to say, are you by any chance a Thiemite?
In the beginning was the word , whats the word?
Go spread the word, whats the word?
Any christian,s Know?
Hey Preacher, The Docs told me more then a year ago that they think I have A.L.S. and I intend to prove 'em wrong or die in the attempt, the way Marines always do, we adapt and persevere and overcome and nothing on this Earth has enabled me to hear the word of God more clearly then this potentially fatal diagnosis. One other thing of importance is the fact that there is no simple positive or negative test for A.L.S., they speculate that a person has it. Watch a copy of Tribes or Full Metal Jacket, get an idea of how our basic training makes Marines what we are and go back to being who you are and if you can't and turn out to be a quitter, I now have the strength to forgive all, but I'm still tweaking that one. It is by far, the most difficult and also the most rewarding. Could ya please help a bit with bin Laden?
I wouldn't wish ALS on my worst enemy (that being the so-called Moral Majority). I'm just glad that, at the end, at least one person involved in this misbegotten movement realizes his mistake...sort of.
please can you ask him if i can talk with him my phone # is 603-703-3840 thank you may light and love be with you all
Realizes his mistake? Where was that part? I think, because you hate God, you're trying to read far more into the story than is there.
sam stone, I never knew that righteousness, and peace are 'religions,' for the last time I checked religions divide us, and control us, and are used on us for gain, having in differences, but YHWH is of righteousness, and He is of peace equally for all. YHWH does not condone religions, never, and never has religion, or the word religion been written in the book of remembrance, the OT. The men, the prophets are who were chosen by YHWH, and who wrote for Him, for us to remember all that has been done, in Amos 3v7. This is all He wants from us, and to do His law of our life as said in Deut.32v45-47, designed for us to attain righteousness, and peace, for He should know what is the right things, and ways for us as a people living all together as one in harmony, is the factor here, and the only way to become a civilization of peace. This takes the effort of everyone doing the right things by ourselves, and others, as said in Ezekiel 14v14, of righteousness, we are all responsible for our own.
lorraine: how many belief systems associate themselves with jesus? do the buddhists? shinto? hindu? no, only christians. therefore, it is a CHRISTIAN religion. you do not need any particular belief system to be peaceful, or righteous.
"...for the last time I checked religions divide us, and control us, and are used on us for gain,"
"divide us"....christians claim they are right and all others are wrong
"control us".....christians claim they know the mind of god and we should do what he says (they say)
"used on us for gain" .....right, control is not an issue with christians....for example, a woman's reproductive rights
perhaps not all christians fit this mold, but to claim christianity is not a religion is absurd
Being a Christian is not being a part of the Jerry Fawell or Ralph Reed camp. These camps proved themselves to be corrupt a long time ago. Being a Christian is living and doing as Jesus taught and that means being hated by the world and right wing politics is of the world and empty in the end. So if one's faith is not a gift from God he/she has no faith, the person just lives according to their opinions.
Living and doing as Jesus taught would require abstaining from sin, leading others to Truth, and confronting a world gone mad. Not to say Jerry Falwell was anything like Christ, but Christ was certainly not liberal either. Christians either: 1.) Take God's Truth and ignore His love (legalism), 2.) Take God's love and ignore His Truth (universalism and twisted morality), or 3.) They try to meet half-way (apathetic and lukewarm).
Jesus was fully loving and fully truthful. There was no compromising/middle-ground for Him. Those that say He just wanted to teach us all to "love" and tolerate each other are beyond foolish. And those that say He wanted to cast everyone into hell are just as foolish. He came to seek and save the lost, and the lost are in sin. He came to save sinners, not ignore sin. He came to pay the price for sin.
The central theme of His entire life can be summed up in John 14:6, which is the most consistent message in all four Gospels: that everyone looks to their own way, but those who look to Him will be saved. He said HE is the bread of life, HE is the light of the world, HE is the living water, HE is the only rightful king, HE is the self-existent one, HE is the Way. This is what He said, and everyone must take it or leave it.
Take away every doctrine in Christianity–serving the poor, the Trinity, the Second Coming, turning the other cheek, and everything else–and ONE thing remains: Jesus is the ONLY way out. He's it. There is no other road or path that leads anywhere... except to destruction. This is the central doctrine of the Christian faith and has always been.
Being a christian is about defining one's acceptable limits.. There's no objective way to "test" someone to find out if they're a "true christian," so it's all about how much faith you have in your individual interpretation of how to live.. When you worship "god" you're imagining a perfect vision of yourself, so it's important that you can justify how you select what ways to worship and what precepts to consider foundational to the values you already uphold.
Gary – the key point to your comment is that jesus "said" he is all those things. Just like the bible says it is the truth. It's like the old joke:
Rule #1 – the boss is always right
Rule #2 – in the event the boss is wrong, see Rule #1.
Did any of these Christian Right Moral Majority types ever notice that Jesus never got involved in politics even though everyone was after him to do so
It is purported that Jesus said, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's; render unto God what is God's." That a kind of political system. There are more examples, but not very many. Jesus was all about setting up conditions for the coming of the Kingdom of God which has not come yet. Jesus thought it was imminent as did Paul and others. Alas, it is not ever coming. It's a pipe dream I am afraid. This is a courageous man who needs friends and faith in his last days of life. Let's provide that for him. Compassion speaks volumes.
I wish him more peace and love then the Evangelicals ever did for us gays.
Peace on *you*, sir/madam. And all who share your experience.
Facing death, a top pastor rethinks what it means to be Christian
Well when he has assumed room temp, he will find out. It would be funny if he found out he was worshipping the wrong god and will suffer for it. lol
But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.
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.