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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. DC Clark

    Don't think we watched the same video

    February 19, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  2. michael

    Religion has always been the cause of all our problems, not the solution! Its time to grow up, their is no pie in the sky. Their is no devil, Their is no god! Good and bad are the results of us choosing paths that we determine to be just that!

    February 19, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • KeithTexas

      There is good (God) and there is evil (Satan) they just aren't where the Christians think they are.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  3. effin gsus

    poetic justice

    February 19, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  4. sk

    [Quran 22:74] They do not value God as He should be valued. God is the Most Powerful, the Almighty.

    [Quran 6:116] If you obey the majority of people on earth, they will divert you from the path of God. They follow only conjecture; they only guess.
    [Quran 40:62] Such is God your Lord, the Creator of all things. There is no god except He. How could you deviate?

    “The example of Jesus, as far as GOD is concerned, is the same as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him, "Be," and he was.” Quran [3:59]
    “They even attribute to Him sons and daughters, without any knowledge. Be He glorified. He is the Most High, far above their claims.” Quran [6:100]
    “Proclaim, He is the One and only GOD. The Absolute GOD. Never did He beget. Nor was He begotten. None equals Him." [112:1]

    [Quran 2:62] Surely, those who believe, those who are Jewish, the Christians, and the converts; anyone who (1) believes in God, and (2) believes in the Last Day, and (3) leads a righteous life, will receive their recompense from their Lord. They have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve.
    Most exalted is the One in whose hands is all kingship, and He is Omnipotent.The One who created death and life for the purpose of distinguishing those among you who would do better. Quran [67.2]

    Every time humanity deviated from this path, God sent down His of prophets (Noah, Ibrahim, Mosses Jesus and Mohammed were among thousands) who carried this single message to the whole humanity (And they all had the highest moral standards).
    Thanks for taking time to read my post. Please take a moment to clear your misconception by going to whyIslam org website.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • Smell_This

      if only followers of Islam practiced what they preach. Too bad words are meaningless without actions! So, thanks but no thanks.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • KeithTexas

      Smell This – It seems like you could say that about any Religion you might choose.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  5. Vernon

    Wow. Is the liberal hate culture so strong here that just the mention of the religious right sends everybody into a hate-feeding frenzy. There's a human story here. Step off the soap boxes for just a moment and be human, people. You can go back to preaching and bashing later.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  6. The Change

    Pastor Dobson, you aren't the first to pass over and you won't be the last. The veil comes to everyone who's ever lived. Even if pain initially comes with it, the pain will leave and the weightlessness and clarity will come and you will never longer care about this life you've left behind.

    Just enjoy the adventure, like you would if you were at an amusement park and you were the next in line.

    Just move on...

    Good Luck

    February 19, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  7. deathdoesntmatter

    Think of all the years before you were born, you didn't exist. When you die, you will cease to exist. Don't fear death.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Follix

      Yeap but on an infinite time line, we should exist an infinite number of times, it's only a question of probabilities and matter transformation.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • Kay

      Yup. The unknown frightens soooo many people...so they scare themselves even more about it with things like "hell" and "satan". I've never understood that.

      Personally I really like the idea of going to sleep sometime...and simply never waking up. I see nothing scary about that at all. After all, I'm not going to know it :-)

      February 19, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  8. Ken Jones

    This guy is on to something. Beautiful story.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  9. 1ofTheFallen

    Thanks Ed for sharing. My father passed away in April from ALS. He went from being a man who was always helping his sons, grandsons and neighbors fix anything and everything to a man who could not walk or roll over in bed. He would fall off the edge of bed and have to wait 30 minutes for someone stong enough to come and get him up. My dad always tried to keep his sprits up through out his struggle. I hope I have the same courage he had when my time comes.

    I don't know about God and an intelligence that plays a helping part in our daily lives. I do know that what the New Testament teaches is how we should all strive to treat each other so that we won't destroy each other.

    The Big Bang theory and the primoridial ooze is just as far fetched as the theory of God. The only difference is that now scientiest no longer believe in the primoridial ooze and have many many doubts and questions as to how an unbelievably immense ball of matter could explode and start create the universe.

    Where did all this matter come from to begin with? Also why is our universe still accelerating apart considering we were all taught that the universe was slowing and would eventually collapse back into a giant ball. Too many questions and few answers so live and let live. Nobody has the answers of God or the Big Bang so everyone should let each other belive in what suites them.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • michael

      where did the ozee come from, who made it? Where did God come from, who make him. I think the answer is, we made god! We even made him in OUR own image! When ever you get into the debate of something had to have a creator, then the same logic applies to who made the creator.... I know the answer to that! We made him!

      February 19, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • Kay

      Of course, that also leaves the question of "where did God come from?" And, nope, contrary to what many argue..."God's eternal, so He was always there" is *NOT* an acceptable answer...unless that can also be the answer to questions like "where did the universe come from" :-)

      The fact that *we* don't know an answer doesn't mean there isn't an answer other than "God". It simply means we don't know the answer.

      But, you're definitely right that "Too many questions and few answers so live and let live...so everyone should let each other belive in what suites them." Too bad far too many people seem to think it's more appropriate to proclaim that what suites them is what *must* suit everyone else...or else they're totally justified in killing, stoning, shunning, harming others in the name of their own belief.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  10. worktolive

    Hmm, I don't see it that way at all. He says he is no longer a preacher, he is a Jesus follower, period. That doesn't sound like proof that the Bible stories are ridiculous or irrelevant. You need to real this article again, my friend.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • reason

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_BzWUuZN5w&w=640&h=390]

      February 19, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  11. lack of evidence

    It always amazes me when a Christian tells someone else to let them believe what they want to believe. Quite hypocritical if you as me.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  12. Caral from SoCal

    This is a "Belief Blog" – it is primarily going to focus on people of faith. Yet everytime I come here to read an article, I find the comments filled with bile from those who oppose belief – or faith – in either some or all of its expression. Comments are many times dominated by vocal opponents of faith/religion. The thing is, by commenting here in such a manner it reflects more on you than it does either the people in the articles or the people who would find them interesting and inspiring. You do not need to defend your decision to reject faith to me. Everytime I see that bristling here, that obvious defensiveness, it speaks volumes.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  13. spenteco

    Last Sunday my brother-in-law died. He was diagnosed June 12, 2010 with ALS. ALS is one of the worst diseases. It barely registers on the radar of illnesses. I have utmost respect for anyone who suffers from this disease and carries on the good fight as he did. Courage.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  14. Rob

    Hopefully a day will come soon when ALL Christians who presume to judge others and dictate God's word will rethink their ways. In this world filled with hate and bigotry fueled by religious zeal, more compassion and love are needed. People think they need religion to believe in and love God. They don't. Religion is bad; it gets in the way and is not what God wants.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • jensej

      I agree, you dont have to be going to church and be apart of a religious group to be close to God. Your innerself doing the right thing and helping others is what matters to God. There is a reason Karma happens, there is some sort of energy, or God that is watching over us, making destiney happen, I have seen to many crazy things for this world to just be chance.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Believer

      You want christias to be more loving and just let everyone be? I have a question if there is a fire would a loving person who sees the fire just let the others sleep? No he would wake them up and get them out of the house as quickly as possible. I understand that some christians could come off as hating. I do to sometimes, but I live with the philosophy love the sinner hate the sin. I hate the act of abortion,but I still love the woman who undergoes the procedure.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  15. Joel

    The question is: What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? I would say the answer would be:

    "And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me."

    – Luke 9:23

    February 19, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  16. lance corporal

    the heading led me to believe there was a REAL story here, some real soul searching....nope just self pity from a man who has done real harm with his life, a man who has actively harmed others during his life and now is being applauded for being able to RELUCTANTLY accept that he's no longer the BMOC, this guy doesn't know god and the sheep that follow and celebrate him are being led away from any real sense of god, sorry for your pain, many of us are dealing with similar things and with less support, use your time to search your own soul instead of making believe you are helping others

    February 19, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  17. Not MyName

    So all his friends and followers dumped him like yesterdays fish? That says something about the culture of the flock he grew. Focus on the family????

    February 19, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • LMP

      I know Ed. Where do you get that all his friends and followers dumped him? From the day he got no phone calls? I can tell you why-as one who sat in the pew of his church every week, we wanted to respect his desire to step down without thousands of people asking him "how are you feeling?" We were also in shock. This guy was seemingly very healthy when he was first diagnosed. He was a runner. He took teenagers backpacking for a week in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He led groups of people on strenuous tours in Israel. Ed has a huge number of supporters, friends, former parishioners that love him and would do anything for him and his wife. You people are judging a man, his intentions, his beliefs, his life on a short article you read. Wow!!!! I'm astonished.

      March 4, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  18. len

    God, gods, religions, beliefs, fabrications, stories, nay, actual systems designed, modified, interpreted and enforced to attract and retain their followers often in not very good ways.
    No Thank You, I prefer to base my beliefs on what I see, feel and experience, which does not exclude the electro-magnetic spectrum, astronomy, sub-atomic particles and so on.
    Also the existence of other realities, and glimpses into the 'edges' of them, which I believe probably was the reason many of these gods and stories started.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • lance corporal

      sounds like deism what many of our founders believed in

      February 19, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  19. Not All Docs Play Golf

    Science builds modern jet aircraft.
    Religion flies them into buildings.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Joink

      Science can't build a working human heart or put life into anything. You're religion is science whether you know it or not. You are a religious person, how strange.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • jensej

      Science builds nukes, the bible teaches to love your neighbor as yourself. I dont quite get your logic.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  20. Justin

    Wow, this man is walking proof that the bible's stories are so ridiculous and irrelevant. It took him coming so close to death to see life as the rarity it is because the bible closed his mind to further knowledge. you and many others can learn faster/more about the earth and the universe than this guy did during his "death-bed epiphany". see life for the rarity and beauty that it actually is. open your minds to knew knowledge, "for being proved wrong is only opening your mind to a further understanding". it is about time all religions open their mind to the world for what it truly is and needs. up until now humans haven't known how to live at one with the environment. but i do see from experience that the younger generation will get it right. look to the sky and stay happy:)

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

      Your remarks are very closed minded to your way of thinking. Your remarks are insensitive to others. You should take a hard look at yourself and ask am I a good person. Good people dont tare others down because people dont believe like they do. I respect your mind set, but I do not tear it down as stupid.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • DSNTMATTER

      Wow, such deep and profound words you have Sir… Maybe you can be the next Buddha!

      February 19, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Adom

      Justin, your comments don't strike me as you being someone who has a critical mind to reading. From your comments you don't seem to have read the above article very well. And I certainly don't think you have read the bible either.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Sandra

      Life is so much more beautifully complicated than finding everything you need by simply "looking to the sky and smiling,"...sheesh. Maybe you need to open your mind a bit. Following Christ is about opening doors in your life – not being bound by chains. I'll be praying for ya Justin ;)

      February 19, 2012 at 12:40 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.