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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. caiaphas

    God bless you, Ed. May blessing fall upon everything you lay your hands to. You are a good man. I am not religious, but since i don't see anyone else around here walking on water, i suggest you ignore those who would cast doubt or blame upon you for being who you are. We all must make the attempts at finding the truth that we see as valid and worthy.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • John

      Why don't you just shut the he1l up?

      February 19, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Wondering

      To John, ahhhh...a disciples name. Pehaps you are the Anti-John? :) Perhaps advice given is good advice taken? I dare ay it isn't what one believes, it is how one uses it. This man lead a life most of us fear...right John?

      February 19, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  2. Writfinesse

    Spelling error: fourth line down, eighth word right. Should be "gave", not "game".

    February 19, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • I kan spel betterer than my IPad

      You couldn't find a betterer hobby then this? Maybe the weather is nice an yu cud enjoy a walk or ball game? Play with yer dawg?

      February 19, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  3. Leucadia Bob

    Bobby Brown's got nothin on this:
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EeEiEYKaX0s&w=640&h=390]

    February 19, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  4. revolting peasant

    Maybe there is compromise between the "believers" and the "non-believers". What if we all agree that life and the universe were created by some supreme being, but from there it is all in the imagination of the people. Does God really care what happens here on earth or is he/she busy creating another world somewhere else?

    February 19, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  5. ironage

    After being on Earth for 45 years now.....and being part of one church or another for most of that time....i have come to the realization that Grover....the muppet from Sesame Street....is actually the "Living God". All praise be upon him!

    February 19, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • asda

      All praise Grover

      February 19, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • John

      Grover is not the real god, big bird is. Our people must kill yours for the next 1000 years!

      February 19, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  6. DC

    I hope Mr. Dobson has many peaceful years left ahead of him in this lifetime.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  7. Liz

    A great and honest story. Refreshing to read.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  8. 13Directors

    I'm glad that he's found a new way in his faith; let's just hope his broader outlook includes people with who appears to have little in common with.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Chappy

      How much of your statement reflects believing what the media told you about those people?

      I don't honestly know that much about their organization, but I know for a fact a liberal biased media portrayed them as fools. There are plenty of one minded individuals about, but primarily it's by people who accuse others of the same.

      Their movement had to have had as many kinds of individuals as individuals themselves. It couldn't be otherwise. Thinking you know every thing because you got religion is a bit hard to take, but thinking you know everything and that you are superior to those who disagree wit you because of your own personal biases is just another one of the same.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  9. steve w

    God bless you Ed.I am soon to be 56years old. After all this time I realize I know very little about anything. BUT I have learned the most important thing is Life is a gift.We must love each other and save judgement for God I could care less what church you go to,good for you God is in all of us if we allow him.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  10. Why can't Americans spell properly?

    Lose is the opposite of gain. Loose is the opposite of tight. Therefore, one LOSES one's life - or one's common sense, when one believes in a god or the pitiful lies of religion!

    February 19, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • You may find

      Ahhh, a man who has served many being judged by one who probably serves only himself. One mans belief brings him to help others and anothers brings him to speak ill of such a man. Which of the two creates a better world? We all go away some day so what a silly question to ask.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  11. RobbT

    This fellows main issue is that he thinks of leaving this Realm as "the end."

    February 19, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Ed

      The beginning...the end...the beginning- simply a matter of perspective. I see no difference really. Is each step the end of the lat or the beginning of the next ot both. If one does not beliee in the after life and religion than I suppose we can look at it subatomically and wonder if there really was an end or a beginning to it all. Then of course, The Big Bang is seen as the beginning but was it not also the beggining. Words, labels...tough living a symbolic life as if it has any true meaning at all.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  12. Kathy

    God bless you Ed

    February 19, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  13. FK

    We all tend to think life is forever and we're guaranteed a certain amount of time in this world. People need to wake up and realize that earth is just crumb compared to the universe. Astronauts will be the first to tell you how insignificant our dear earth looks from out of space. People tend to think that we're the pioneers of humanity and this is the first time creation has happened. On the contrary, this phenomenon has been going on forever, longer than man can possibly count. Any religious belief is no harm as long as followers stick to the principles, and stay on the positive side of it. Most problems arise when certain groups use religion, or the manipulation of it in order to gain control of others. But the pastor is on the right track and with consistent yearning, one day he will come across the absolute truth.

    February 19, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Wondering

      How do you know that? An astronaut, by virtue of seeing material things from another vantage point does not cause him to be all knowing. What tpe of thinking is it that views only peole who attach themselves to religion cause or create war? What about your experience and faith in what you believe is any different than one who believes in a God? How do you know what is right or wrong living on a crumb? Why? Fascinating- eeryone has an answer and the answer is that everyone elses answer is incorrect and ours is the correct one. But to this man- I have no aswers and nly he knows his life. I wish him well on his voyage and rebirth.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  14. Chopper

    The FOOL says in his heart there is no GOD.

    You all can say what you want but your time is coming when you will face death and I hope you are as brave and confident and arrogant as you are now, which I doubt you will be.

    I wouldn't be there to see you on your death bed weak, trembling and fearfull as you stare death in the face but I pray to Jesus that you call upon his name to have mercy on you.

    Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is the son of the living GOD.

    He is the potter and we are the clay, can the clay tell the potter what it should or shouldn't do?

    Think about these things seriously FOOLS.

    February 19, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • John B

      That's it. Insult those who believe differently than you do. I'm sure Jesus will love it.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Mtnmedic

      Yourself tin foil hat fell off. Better put it back on,

      February 19, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • The Rational Man

      And this is why no one listens to evangelicals anymore. Holier than thou, judgmental fools. You have taken a teaching of peace and humility and turned it into cultural war and egotism.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Engineer in Raleigh

      The FOOL says in his heart there is no Allah.

      You all can say what you want but your time is coming when you will face death and I hope you are as brave and confident and arrogant as you are now, which I doubt you will be.

      I wouldn't be there to see you on your death bed weak, trembling and fearfull as you stare death in the face but I pray to Allah that you call upon his name to have mercy on you.

      Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Mohammed is the prophet of the living Allah.

      He is the potter and we are the clay, can the clay tell the potter what it should or shouldn't do?

      Think about these things seriously FOOLS.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • mizh

      WHO'S arrogant here?!

      February 19, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • RobbT

      Death is pat of the illusion. Spirit is eternal.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • matt houston

      Only a person who vainly clings to his life and the pleasures of his memories and who is afraid of the unknown will tremble. Why else would anyone be afraid of death? It is the one thing which every single imaginable thing, alive or inanimate goes through in their existence. To long for immortality is the peak of arrogance and greed which ignores this law. To long for immortality in a place of indulgence...well, you think about the degree of arrogance and greed in this case.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Nare

      I expect that Jesus will have a more compassionate heart than you. BTW, I think your approach will turn more people away than draw them near.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Chappy

      @chopper, and a man who calls another a fol is in danger of hell fire.

      Guessing you forgot about that one?

      February 19, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Chappy

      @chopper, and a man who calls another a fool is in danger of hell fire. Matt 5:22

      Guessing you forgot about that one?

      I see more kind of wrong thinking about yourself than others on the Internet where it relates to peole who claim to know God. Stuff like this makes people CHOOSE to go to hell than be lke you.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • bible hater

      god works in mysterious ways?? not so much really. here you have a religious bigot who tried to force his beliefs onto non-believers. god didn't like that and gave him ALS as a payback. nothing mysterious here. when you use jesus to push forward your own agenda....the real god will slap you down.

      enjoy your trip Pastor....you won't be needing a jacket or coat as it's always hot down there.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      The fact that there is no God is NOT said in the heart, it's known in the brain.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  15. Top Pastor

    Ed Dobson, you will not be this year's "Top Pastor". Please pack your bible and go.

    February 19, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Casey

      Why is it that the most hateful comments are always on articles dealing with christianity?

      February 19, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  16. Walter

    My hope is that as more and more people start to question religion, they will start to look at the world more realistically. The idea that "the lord will provide" is just that – an idea. Some people are lucky and others aren't. Many people pray for help (for illness, finanacial woes, etc.) and never get it. That same idea comes into play with those who feel that they should be able to have whatever they want (children, free health care, etc.) because the government will provide it for them if they can't. In both cases people are hoping that someone/something else (a "higher power", a government) will provide for them. Both of these situations are increasingly unrealistic.

    February 19, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  17. Len

    Don't Believe the Lies of Religion

    I have been touched by HIM, healed by HIM, changed by HIM, seen healings by HIM, seen miracles be HIM. Sorry he's real! Love you.

    February 19, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  18. SomeGreyBloke

    Jesus Loves You:
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2bpc7LSRZc&w=640&h=390]

    February 19, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Dave

      You're just mildly confused..... keep searching the animated YouTube's, you'll find one that fits perfectly.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  19. Peter

    Read THE PHYSICS OF IMMORTALITY, by cosmological physicist, Frank Tipler. It made a "believer" out of me, again and it is based soley on contemporary physics and mathematics.

    February 19, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Chappy

      Metaphysics are not even remotely new.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  20. OldMo

    Wrong. . .please explain atheists/occultists like Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot etc., etc.. It seems disbelief in God doesn't result in the utopia some like to assert. It seems the "opiate of the masses" for them is mass murder. I'll keep my faith thanks.

    February 19, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • reason

      This answers your question:
      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0sftrzOQ_Y&w=640&h=390]

      February 19, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • matt houston

      That's cute. Those guys were insane murderers who were power hungry. You forgot to mention how your precious religion has sinned in the past and currently against humanity. From Judiasm, to Christianity, to Islam...you are all guilty of mass murder. If you didn't know this, you need to read history books and your bible, koran or Torah.

      February 19, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Top Pastor

      I guess her pimp let her out of his sight for a little too long.

      February 19, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Halo of Flies

      Hey, didn't she play the one legged russian s l u t that banged Tony Saprano on the couch?

      February 19, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • IceT

      Hitler was a devout Catholic, Stalin was raised and educated for the preisthood of the Russian orthodox church. It seem obviouse enough that religion incubated their bloodlust .. religious education is the common factor.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:13 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.