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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 • Faith Now • United States

soundoff (3,194 Responses)
  1. eseuj

    The God fearing, God-is-on-our-side crowd. The nasty, preachy Christian swarm, the Islamic zealots. On the march! A mirror image of one another, perverted versions of the same belief system. The borne-again's, the multi-headed Christian evangelists, the radical Islamic Clerics. The false profits, with their multimillion-dollar compensations for bringing the message of peace, love and forgiveness ... no meanness, to the masses. I'd just love to be a Praying Mantis on the wall when these so called men and women of GOD go before the BIG DOG for their entrance interview. Think they'll be given the keys to the magic kingdom? Extremists, army's of fanatical Religious zealots, driven by greed, control and power in this life, intolerant of the very world God created. Preaching salvation and bliss in the next life for those who believe and eternal damnation and extermination to all non believers. The Theory of Evolution will not be tolerated. Charles Darwin is Satin, Science is the Anti-Christ. Global warming is a left wing conspiracy and the "Sun isn't yellow it's chicken" ... thanks Bob. Goose-step is resurrected before our very eyes(The Lion and the Unicorn).

    God protect me from your followers.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Darren

      Charles Darwin is Satin? Why not wool, or taffeta, or even cotton?

      February 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  2. Linda C - AZ

    Suddenly, when faced with the realization that God is coming to get you and very, very soon, all the things that you strived for in life don't really matter anymore. Big houses, big cars, big salaries mean nothing. Imagine for a moment, God is coming to bring you home in five minutes (because someday it really is going to happen), how do you want to be remembered ? Should your epitaph on your tombstone say, "He had the biggest house?" Most people say they want to be remembered for being a good person. Why then, do we keep on seeking the wrong things? This man has come to the realization that as Christ did, he emptied himself of all self importance and is now being readied for the Kingdom of God. He, who is the least, is the greatest.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Actually that is Buddhist philosophy.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  3. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    God(s) is nothing more than anthropomorphised human ignorance. Whatever we don't know or don't yet understand is answered as God. So god(s) is simply the sum of all human ignorance.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • KeithTexas

      We are so sorry that you suffer with such Gods. Most of us however choose differently than you did.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Atheists don't suffer from God(s), only believers do.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • McKraken

      @If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      I don't know about you, but as a atheist, I suffer plenty from god(s). Sort of like supernatural hemorrhoids.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      McKraken ... excellent point. However I believe we Atheists suffer from believers and their concept of God(s).

      February 19, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  4. jbird

    There is nothing wrong, with coming to the sudden realization you could have exercised moral and ethic control, without pressures from a church. Even as a humanist, I had near death experiences, making me wonder about some things.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  5. KeithTexas

    He didn't find God in the bible, he never found wisdom in the bible, he found those things in his humanity.

    I have been with many dying men and never did they ever call out to God in their last minutes. Never did they see Jesus as they were slipping away. They called out to their loved ones and they saw their ancestors waiting for them on the other side.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Joan

      I agree. When my husband was dying he saw his mom, grandmother and a lot of guys that had died in Vietnam when he was over there. He also saw some of my relatives and kept asking me why aren't you talking to your uncle, etc. We are both Christians, but I think this is God's way of preparing us for the end.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • David

      This is a lie from the evil one. There is no strength or honor in our humanity, ONLY in Jesus. The devil wants us to believe this lie because we dishonor God when we think this, and it is our fear of death (and therefore lack of faith in Jesus) that allows us to believe his lies that only make us "feel" better..

      February 19, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  6. Brandon

    this is a very strong video. If you see this video any other way than an eye opener your just not getting the message. Obviously everyone knows that someday they will pass. What he is saying is that you need to just slow it down and really see where you stand, what your doing and the person you are. Very Very strong and really appreciated. Good luck with LGS

    February 19, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  7. James

    Right here in America we committed mass genocide against Native Americans based on a Christianity-based policy of manifest destiny, the belief that the US was divinely ordained to expand across the North American continent.

    Religion as a source of personal strength in times of need can be a wonderful thing. As a guide in establishing government policy, whether domestic or foreign, it is a scourge on civilization.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • AK

      Read something on US history besides Zinn and Alinsky.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • James

      All you have to do is examine the facts: what happened, what was the context, and what was the justification. A culture of religion-based public policy is culpable for Native American genocide now matter how your favorite historian cares to spin it.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • KeithTexas

      AK – it seems James has it right to me.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  8. AK

    #437 in the CNN 'Why Christianity is a Sham, there's No God, and Smart Christians convert to Agnosticism" series....brought to you by Georgie Soros and Teddie Turner.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Nare

      Apparently you didn't read the article.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • AK

      I read it...then I read past it, in light of the faux-religion series CNN has been spewing in the recent past. I hold to my initial evaluation.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Andy Anderson

      What planet do you live on?

      February 19, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  9. Joink

    CNN coming up with any perspective or story on God (Belief) is utterly ridiculous. The main purpose of any story on this website pertaining to God is to bring the non-believers out in force and "try" to elevate man to a godly stature (while denying God). All hail the scientists, inventors and such. When your scientists and inventors create a planet, solar system or even something like gravity, I might take notice. You clowns grab on to the coat-tails of other clowns running around with clipboards and spewing out theories of how something happened....anyone can have a theory, they are pretty much like opinions. Give me a call when science can explain death, I'm sure since zebra's are stripped to ward off insects, evolution should have found a solution to death. If not evolution, the great scientists should have conquered that long before anything else. You people are a joke and until you can explain the how and at least duplicate it, rejecting a God is Spongebob material.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • HIM

      wow...how old are you? 9?

      February 19, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • NoGodzBeforeUs

      We are all now dumber for having read what you wrote. You are pretty out of touch with reality.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • DOSman

      VERY ~ VERY ~ VERY well said!

      February 19, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Matt

      your statement is terrible here is why:

      1) "When your scientists and inventors create a planet, solar system or even something like gravity, I might take notice" – please show evidence that "your" god did it...good luck.

      2) You clowns grab on to the coat-tails of other clowns running around with clipboards and spewing out theories of how something happened....anyone can have a theory, they are pretty much like opinions." – this sentence describes your scientific ignorance on how theories are formulated, tested and researched in the scientific community. A theory is an explanation of facts, laws. not a mere guess.

      3) "You people are a joke and until you can explain the how and at least duplicate it, rejecting a God is Spongebob material' – if you don't know the answer to something, god or a supernatural sky daddy is not the default. because yet again this proves nothing. people used to think eclipses, diseases, lightening, rain, earthquakes and many other stuff were the acts of god. If your theory is to put your god into the areas where "science cannot explain...yet" – well your god is a never ending shrinking pocket of scientific ignorance...

      February 19, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • DOSman

      "rejecting a God is Spongebob material" – I couldn't have said it better JOINK !

      February 19, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Ben

      What a troll.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • DOSman

      MATT:

      The more theories and the more science there is ~ the more proof there is that something Supernatural does indeed exist.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • trolololol

      Lol you bash science, and inventors, as you post a comment on the internet. I'll give you a hint, science and invention are the reasons you have things like indoor plumbing, you're iphone, microwave, etc. Death is a natural cause of cell replication and damage to such cells through factors in our environment, which is why we age. Actually if you would possibly pay attention to the science community, you would know that we are very close to finding a "cure" to death, or at least the ability to prolong life for vast periods of time. For posting a comment on the internet about how stupid and useless science and invention are, is extremely ironic. You probably get up on Sunday's via your alarm clock, eat a canned breakfast, get in your car, and drive to a building which took science to even build to worship your god. You sir have an extremely narrow view of the world, you are a bigot and quiet frankly, an idiot. The scope of science and invention is so far beyond your pea-brained understanding of the universe that should you ever find out, your cerebral cortex may implode, causing the remnants of grey matter to flow out of your ears like jelly. The bible even says that one of god's greatest gifts to man was rational thought and reason, the very things which science is based off of. So what i'm saying is god loves science, and even seems to be a bit of one himself/herself, you however, are an idiot. =)

      February 19, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Joink

      Matt, show evidence He didn't.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Judigar

      Evolution cannot find a solution to death because evolution needs organisms to die. Without death, earths finite resources would've been used up a long time a go. However, with dead there is nutrient cycling and energy flows between and within earth's system. You my friend is made of up atoms. Atoms that were once residence of probably plants, or animals. That is the cycle of life.
      Secondly, evolution doesnot deny or support the existence of god. Evolution is simply change in a line of descent. Current organisms on earth where not present at time zero. This means they must have evolve from pre existing ones. Check the fossil records. What determines these evolution is natural selection. God's existence or presence doesnot fit the narratives of the scientific methods. It is your own personal responsibility to decide whether he exists or not. It's sad to say people always get science interwin with religion.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • DOSman

      "The bible even says that one of god's greatest gifts to man was rational thought and reason, the very things which science is based off of. So what i'm saying is god loves science, and even seems to be a bit of one himself/herself"

      AMEN AMEN AMEN, My point exactly!!!!

      February 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • trolololol

      no dosham or whatever your name was. Considering your above comments with you agreeing with the OP, that makes you equally an idiot, don't agree with my statement unless you actually know what it means, if thats the only thing you were able to pick out of that post, then your a fool.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Joink

      trolololol, here's where you are missing the boat....I imagine not the only place but here's a start. You are putting the cart before the horse and it typically what people do. You referenced the computer and all kind of things that are dependent on some sort of computer or technology. If you take away the invention of the computer, you have nothing. Would Adobe exsist without a computer? Maybe, but they would be selling vegetables and cow manure. Your thinking is liberally ridiculous. By everything you said, you should be thanking God that you have an Ipad, home, gravity, beating heart, sun to keep you warm, oxygen so you can breath, teeth so you can chew, water so you can drink......Where would you be right now without gravity? Dead, floating up in the stratosphere or somewhere around there without oxygen that scientists didn't create. Think about it, scientists didn't create oxygen, gravity, the Earth, the sun, blood, plants, CO2, dirt, diamonds (yea, they made copies)......you have made my point very well. Man has created gadgets and there is no comparison to life or the universe. Come back when there is a commercial on.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • DOSman

      It's not the only thing I picked out of the post. The rest of the post however was reflecting a much smaller picture than that which we speak. Live and Spirituality is a very HUGE subject. The facts of which are so immense, all the books and the Internet itself cannot hold them.

      “Jesus loves us”

      ~~ It IS Incomprehendable ~~

      February 19, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Andy Anderson

      The most effective way to make non-believers shut up PERMANENTLY is to give actual proof of the existence of your particular god.

      If you had good reasons to believe that your claims about your deity of preference are true, you would have posted those instead of your barely-coherent rant.

      But you didn't.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  10. Qdilse

    Instead of putting so much of our tax dollars into the military for the purpose of killing people, we need the spend this money for a cure for this and other horrific diseases.

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

      Killing people is what America is all about. We are a warring nation, fighting wars for world domination and profit. Your politictions tell you what you want to hear but the truth is they don't care about you or the sick folks suffering in America.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  11. Len

    Like Caral from So Cal said, if you don't believe
    in God you don't have comment on this site, it's your choice, life is made up of choices. I believe I have been touched by HIM, healed by HIM, seen healings, seen miracles, so that's my choice.

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

      Shut up Len. We can comment on anything we want. This section is not reserved for just the religious. That is just one of many problems with so-called believers. Either we have to agree with you or be cast out. Christians have infected almost every part of this country and government and we are sick of it. It's simple Len. Either you're a Christian and you believe EVERYTHING that the bible says, including the 80% of violence and inhumanity that God not only allowed, but commanded. Or, you are a part of the majority of watered down Christians in this country that claim to have access to divine ethics and morals that most people learn in the third grade. Either way, you are dying breed. Reason and tolerance built this country and the fastest growing belief among the young is secular thought. We atheist do so much to help people in this world but are never acknowledged because we don't care about a return on our investment. We do it because it is the right thing to do and not because we are hoping for a reward after life or out of fear of damnation. We are more educated, more tolerant and 8 times less likely to commit crimes. Oh Len, let me tell you. We have seen the light and it is telling us that we should respect all living things and do our best on this planet to make it as close to paradise as possible.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Andy Anderson

      I have no doubt that you sincerely believe the things you listed actually occurred, and that they were the actions of your deity of preference.

      Millions of people sincerely believe in the present-day 'miracles' worked by the formerly living god Sathya Sai Baba. The same is true for billions of followers of Islam and the 'miracles' of their faith. They truly believe in the miraculous power of their own deities of choice.

      Just because a whole lot of people believe something doesn't mean they're right.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  12. Cecil Burrow

    This guy is allowed to drive, but can't even hold a toothbrush properly?

    Get him off the roads.

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

      Hate to state the obvious...but you missed the point completely.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  13. FK

    First of all, government and religion should never become one thanks to good examples provided by many middle eastern countries. It's basic common sense, whatever religion a government adopts will become the model for laws and regulations that govern that country. In other words, members from other faiths will have to live under a constant religious style contrary to their own beliefs which automatically negates religious freedom. For example, what if the U.S. government adopts Catholicism as her religious foundation?? Mostly Catholic members will be voted in to congress and senate respectively, this could lead to laws that would abolish any form of contraceptives from being sold in the United States. It's good to have religious politicians, but it's counterproductive to use their religious beliefs as a foundation to govern a country.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  14. Halo of Flies

    Without consciousness, space and time are nothing; in reality you can take any time - whether past or future -− as your new frame of reference. Death is a reboot that leads to all potentialities. Or not.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Dr.Fritz

      Without space and time, consciousness is no thing. Meister Eckhart didn't say that, but almost. :)

      February 19, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  15. Justlookatchina

    CNN reporting 1 out of million rare God's special grace again, this Pastor certainly is given a special plan by God. If you so love atheist land, go to cursed places like China, they never believe in God.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  16. reason

    Here's the second part of the previous video. If you still think biblical stories are not absurd, watch this:

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

      ALL ANSWERS AVAILABLE AFTER DEATH.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • reason

      Humans know everything we know through science and reason. The reality is that it is entirely possible that upon your death you will not find any answers and that you'll just be dead.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Halo of Flies

      Thank you that was great.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  17. rae ekaf

    Maybe he found out that the pre-tribulation "rapture" doctrine he was "preaching" was false.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  18. AGuest9

    At least they finally took coked-up Whitney off the home page. What was it, a week? Good riddance.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  19. Randy Garner

    "Dobson said this is not how he thought he would react to news of his own immortality." It's mortality idiot. How many editors do you guys have over there?

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

      He meant what he said. He believes in immortal life, and so his death, he felt, would put him on the doorstep of immortality. It's just an expression, but that's clearly what he meant.

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

      AMEN.

      It is disturbing to see so many mis-spellings in one article.

      Actually I am seeing this anomaly over over the Internet.

      Maybe today's technology is making people more ignorant. :(

      February 19, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • McKraken

      @Donna: This article is not the bible. No need to interpret it to suit your own needs. It's clearly an editorial mistake in the context of the paragraph. It should read "mortality".

      February 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  20. fonseka3

    An inspiring story. God bless him and his family! !

    February 19, 2012 at 12:29 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.