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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 • United States

soundoff (3,195 Responses)
  1. icon-design

    It absolutely not agree with the previous message

    P.S. Please review our icons for Windows and windows12icons.

    September 12, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  2. Art Scott

    Pastor Eddie Dobson and his wife Lorna are a tremendous example of God's grace. I love them both. They know the essence of life and God's forgiveness. God bless them. Art Scott, Alumni, Liberty University, Class of 1980

    September 11, 2012 at 7:47 am |
  3. Tim

    http://www.indiegogo.com/hopeheal

    August 29, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  4. Tay

    I would love to share this with you and your guest...It's a truth ministry that can help...
    Please click on the link or go to You tube and type in "TGHC Conroe". New messages are posted every week!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myUfzeQuEK8&feature=relmfu
    ...start at 26:23
    and

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fe8ZfFEVArE
    ...start at 22:15

    LOL in Christ

    August 2, 2012 at 3:14 am |
  5. renikko

    I'm a theology student, and thought this would be a great article to ask several questions pertaining to an assignment where many answers will be needed. No offense, but if you are Christian please do not answer (I have those slots covered).

    Questions:

    1. What do you think about Jesus?

    2.Who was he?

    3.Why does it matter?

    4. Why should we care?

    5. What are your beliefs (atheist, agnostic, ect...)?

    July 11, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • Lorraine

      renikko, I feel that these questions are for me, since I am not a christian, nor am I a jew, but I consider myself to be a Hebrew Israelis descendant from the 12 tribes of Jacob, not pure of course, who is today?, but who were all exiled during the split of the north, and south of Jerusalem in the days of David, and Solomon governors of Judah, Israel for their iniquities, and transgressions against YHWH the creator of all life, prophesied in Isaiah 8, and 9 by YHWH, and who is the only Savior, and Redeemer as He teaches us in Isaiah 49vs.26, and Isaiah 60vs.16, and also He says no man can be delivered from out of 'His' hands in Isaiah 43v13. In Isaiah 43vs.11 it says there is no savior besides YHWH, the Hebrew Creator of all life, taught in Exodus 3vs.18, and Exodus 5vs.3. Therefore, I have no favor with jesus, for many give praise to this idol, taking it away from the true creator, and savior YHWH. None of the story of jc is in Gen.- Malachi, and the only son that YHWH speaks about is also in Exodus 4 vs. 22,23, and it is the chosen people 'Israel' YHWH says they are even His 'firstborn', and you can't have two firstborns right? The reason why this all matters is YHWH is angered from this praise to an idol for He detest this wrong doing against Him, that was warned in Deut. 4-5, and Deut. 30-32, and is why He kicked out the tribes until this day we are all under the wrath, and sword, prophesied in Jeremiah 25, of the Creator YHWH. For He says untl we return to Him we will be under much sufferings, for He gave us so much, and yet we snuffed Him, and His law of life to righteousness, and peace, in Deut. 32vs.45-47, to serving idols instead of His judgments, and statues of the commandments, the law of life. This is why the world is in the trouble it is in, and it is our own fault being hardheaded, and selfishness, not living the life of righteousness of YHWH.

      July 19, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  6. topgunairspace

    Reblogged this on topgunairspace and commented:
    Thank you Ed

    July 1, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  7. Devan

    It shows how people feel about the omoctue. It shows how much people don't like the BNP. It shows the BNP that the people of Manchester do not accept their veiws and are aware of their policies etcc. It may not do anything after they have been elected but it raises awareness..and maybe it'll stop them getting re-elected in the future. && I hope it does.

    June 29, 2012 at 4:18 am |
  8. Lorraine Voss

    melvinslizard, i did say that it is generational curse, stimming from years of wrong doing, and sinning against the law of life, the 10 commandments, the sabbath, and the passover in Exodus 12, and how to eat in Deut 14, and Leviticus 11, and the right way of its peace, and righteousness of YHWHs spirituality for all, not just for some to prolong our days in life.

    June 12, 2012 at 12:40 am |
  9. Howardhantine

    hello there gaza if you still need them i think this is the web address
    filling address , they have 20% discount now, mention hantinesy give you there number

    June 3, 2012 at 1:09 am |
  10. Kindness

    A thought to consider without a typical ego response

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Let go and let god".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from som other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    Your all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome .

    May 22, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • YeahRight

      "Your all smart people . I tell the truth."

      LMAO! Your all smart people . I tell the truth. = EGO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      May 22, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • susanne

      well said....

      June 5, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  11. Evangelicals are Crazy

    Well Dude, what about the people that you led astray with all the hatred with the Moral Majority cr ap. Lot of things to atone for. Bigotry is not a religion of God man, that's the devil's religion.

    May 22, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  12. Zofia Bartman

    I’m not sure where you’re getting your information, but good topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more. Thanks for fantastic info I was looking for this info for my mission.

    May 16, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  13. Hernan

    Pastor you have a great heart and state of mind. You learned and so have I that basic one on one time with somebody could help alot more. Even though you dont preach in a church to thousands doesn't change anything. I basically ruined my life with dumb choices, and would like if I could have some one on one time with you. Alot of friends lost their life and opportunities over foolish things, but just as nobody called you after that day it's as if they slowly fade away too. I'm trying to better my life and learn the ways of god to better myself and thanks to you I think slowly but surely i'll find the strength to help other's but also myself.

    May 16, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  14. video editing australia

    Generally I do not read article on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very forced me to check out and do so! Your writing taste has been amazed me. Thanks, quite great article.

    May 15, 2012 at 2:13 am |
  15. Lorraine

    melvinslizard, and kindness I left my reply to kindness, but its for you both, ok, love Lorraine, from YHWH, and His Word, the Truth.

    May 12, 2012 at 3:26 am |
  16. Lorraine

    Lorraine
    melvinslizard, No I do not think, but I know, for it is the result of all of the 'sin', in difference, greed, poverty etc...that we as a generation to generation has developed, and imposed on one another no matter the race, or skin color, creed, etc..and it will continue, unless we turn back unto the law of the 10 commandments given to Moses for us for our lives in Duet.32v45-47, and the righteousness, and peace of life, given to us by YHWH the only savior, and redeemer we have as He says in Isaiah 49v26, and Isaiah 60v16. No man can ever be delivered from His hands in Isaiah 43v13. YHWHs Word has never changed from this truth, in Malachi 3v6, as He tells us through His prophet Malachi, because as YHWH teaches us, that He does nothing without His prophets, nothing,otherwise we are being mislead sorry but all praise must go to the heavenly creator, and no one else. The servant rules for YHWH, not the other way around.

    May 12, 2012 at 3:22 am |
  17. kindness

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Trancend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ will result in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Currently.... your constructing your own path that suits your sin lifestyle.

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find a truth you can take with you in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life. You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf, the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed, your good deeds are forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated, your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over .
    Trancend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Relise your a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent....

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth.

    Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment. You don't get what you want you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Down is up. Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.

    Your all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box

    May 4, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Lorraine

      melvinslizard, No I do not think, but I know, for it is the result of all of the 'sin', in difference, greed, poverty etc...that we as a generation to generation has developed, and imposed on one another no matter the race, or skin color, creed, etc..and it will continue, unless we turn back unto the law of the 10 commandments given to Moses for us for our lives in Duet.32v45-47, and the righteousness, and peace of life, given to us by YHWH the only savior, and redeemer we have as He says in Isaiah 49v26, and Isaiah 60v16. No man can ever be delivered from His hands in Isaiah 43v13. YHWHs Word has never changed from this truth, in Malachi 3v6, as He tells us through His prophet Malachi, because as YHWH teaches us, that He does nothing without His prophets, nothing,otherwise we are being mislead.

      May 12, 2012 at 3:19 am |
  18. Lorraine

    Stephanie, I'm not being judgmental, its the law of life, the truth of our life, what is good for us to live by to prolong it, and have much less premature deaths, premature death is not life, and the rightousness of the law is the best thing for us. The law is not a rule, you are confusing YHWH with religion, they rule, prophesied in Daniel 11v39-43. YHWH is spirituality for all life. Yes we do die, but if YHWH left for us a better existence of a more healthy way to live, why not do it? Deut.14, and Leviticus 11, its to 'PROLONG' our life, and we are to live righteously, and with peace, among each other with no in differences, no greed, and no poverty, or hate, this would surely help to prolong our lives. Instead of just doing whatever we feel like. No, YHWH does not tell us to live as we want, its prophesied in Deut 4, 5, and 30, and 32 to do well by our lives, and if this had been taught through the generations by our leaders, priest, pastors, popes, and elders, this world would have not gotten worst, but better, and life would be naturally prolonged. But, the greed, selfishness, and hate makes us live wrong, and worst. This is not being judgmental, its a fact, and this is our life, that we as a so called civilization do not value at all, and never have, just as long as we can do what we want to, and gain from any falsehood we advocate. Animals have more value, than we do on life. This is no rule, this is the truth about loving, living well, and having a good life for (ALL), from YHWH our Creator, that we ignor, and then expect good results, and wonder why things are gone to hell, ironic, no just plain stiff necked.

    April 17, 2012 at 12:24 am |
  19. Lorraine

    Philip, being sarcastic is not helping, the truth is Mr. Dobson went against the Heavenly Creator YHWH, the 'law' of life in Deut.32v45-47, and did idolatry, and did not do what the creator's word said, that never changed as He tells us in Malachi 3v6. The word of YHWH the Almighty King, in Psalm 119v137-144, from His beloved servant David, and this is the reason of Dobson's faith. Going astray, and misleading others from the truth of the true savior, and redeemer YHWH as told to us in Isaiah 49v26, and Isaiah 60v16, for in Isaiah 43v13, no man can be delivered from out of His hands, so therefore, should nothing be put before Him, in Isaiah 40v18,21,22,23,25. Mr. Dobson left this truth for his idol, as was prophesied many would do in Jeremiah 50v38.

    April 12, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Stephanie

      Lorrainne you are so misguided. Everyone dies, we have to die of something. God made everything there is and he made the laws that govern all life. Life includes disease and the fact that we are living beings also means that there must be death. Without death, we would not know the joys of life, the precious treasure that life is. God does not strike people down because we don't follow the rules that man says God made, He lets us live as we will and hopes we make good decisions that serve and uplift others. Your judgemental comments do not serve you or God in a good way.

      April 13, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • melvinslizard

      Lorraine thinks sickness is a result of sin, "you have leukemia because you've sinned." What a complete farce, human EGO weilding Christian Truth like it's a weapon of God's revenge.
      If sickness IS a result of sin, then Lorraine's chronic halitosis is due to being full of shhh- it.

      May 9, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  20. Philip

    Wow! So its this good to have the Lord as your shield.its amazing

    April 12, 2012 at 3:07 am |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.