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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. Joe

    "Life" is, unfortunately, a terminal illness.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  2. AMBASSADOR DOCTOR JESUS CHRIST EMMANUEL CHUKWU

    ACT 21:1-15-26 2347057007888 12024561414 18169981736 2348068323869 12022059942 442070837272 18772623764.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  3. Luke

    Why is this on the front page of CNN? There is definitely more important stuff going on in the world.
    I swear, this nation is obsessed with religion. I get it, it comforts you, but it shouldn't affect the lives of people who don't believe.

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

      lo my question is why are you so bothered by a human interest story? Perhaps we wouldn't have some of the other problems if we involved God more in society

      February 19, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Matteo

      Why does it affect the lives of those that don't believe?

      Why did you read it?

      February 19, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Quoting

      WAH

      February 19, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • AGuest9

      I'll take it over coked-up Whitney for a week.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  4. Karl

    This article needed proofread... lots of mistakes.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Dr.Fritz

      The message got through just fine. Are you listening?

      February 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  5. John Gabriel

    He finally quit the job of deception and is now beginning to realize that truth is should prevail. The truth is that the bible is a worthless piece of junk. Clergy people ought to be ashamed of themselves. They should all be put out of business. No more "secure for life" job. They prey and feed off the misery of others.

    Good riddance to this fool! May all his fellow deceivers perish soon and follow him. Religion is the opiate of the people.

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

      again wondering why people are so intense of their hatred of people of faith?? Wondering when's last time someone tried to actually shove religion down your throat?

      February 19, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • 4mercy

      He's not a non-believer. He's just not a preacher anymore. He's a "Jesus follower". He's a believer. I doubt he would say the bible is junk! A Word to wise.....

      February 19, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Quoting

      He just saw it on here so they must be trying to convert him. Its not just a story its a conspiracy by CNN and the church to convert people..................

      February 19, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Dan

      Uhhh... wow. It truly shocks me how much hatred people feel comfortable spewing when they are safe behind a computer screen

      February 19, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • MsMello

      You're right he should be ashamed for wanting to help all he can even thorough his own suffering. He should be more like you. Hateful and attacking of others.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  6. S

    For those who are stuck on religious aspect of this one man's experience; there is a far greater issue then who believes in what. This man might be a pastor but an engineer, an astrophysicist, a politician, a homeless, a president, you and everyone will have to go through the same thing. We are all born , and we shall all die one day. And that is the biggest phenomenon we have in common as living creatures. This man's story is how he channels his difficult times, experiences and feelings into helping others in the same or similar situations. How many of us really sympathize with those in need? and how many of us actually do something to make a difference? This is a reminder of our common destination, our common faith. we as humans have more things in common than our differences. Yet we choose to differentiate instead of integrate. I personally might be a nonbeliever but people like this, who has strength to keep their heads high in the most difficult days and who has determinism to help others that need a hand, give me inspiration to be a better person. He perceives his life the way he believes the best, not only tying to help himself but also others. Thus, my friends, no matter what your religion, your political side, your color, or your social status is, this is one of the noble acts we should all share.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  7. Quoting

    Its not life that scares me. Its not death that scares me. Its the transition in between the two that does

    February 19, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  8. Eric Hill

    I just want to thank CNN for delivering some positive and uplifting news, and that it actually made the homepage. It's nice that at least for one day, for a couple of hours, we can see something other than bombs, death, and destruction.

    This article and the video is an example of what it's all about... we all have a finite journey. Inspiring.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • 4mercy

      The journey doesn't end here.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  9. Dr.Fritz

    Thank you for the beautiful inspirational message. You are reaching, not only thousands, but millions, each one an individual, listening to you, and better for it.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  10. Name*Ted DiDonato

    God bless u Pastor Dobson. U r precious in His sight. U know the Bible says the troubles of this present life r not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be ours when we see Him face to face. Keep the faith, above all thinga. I am on Medicare, I barely survive but I believe His promises more that what seems to be true. I reject the negative and embrace Him

    February 19, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  11. Quoting

    Our Faith will always be tested. His definitely is more than ever right now

    February 19, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  12. crazyvermont

    I'm not sure why we are surprised at Dobson's questions as he approaches death's door as even Christ wrestled with death on the cross. I'm not afraid of death either but am sure I'd have some fears of going through the dying process if having ALS as I watched an uncle slowing choke to death with the disease. Definitely think the dying process can't be uncertain and full of questions

    February 19, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  13. NoPunIntended

    Religion is a joke. It is just a tool of control used by tyrants to oppress people who are too stupid to know better.

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

      I've seen many people pass away both with faith and no faith and can unequivocally tell you those with faith die much more peacefully then those without

      February 19, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Brent Slensker

      @ Crazyvermont REALLY!? I have heard the exact opposite, that it is the believer that dies kicking and screaming and the non-believer, like Christopher Hitchens, that go peacefully!

      February 19, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  14. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

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

      Once he puts you on this earth, your life becomes a spectator sport for God. Not that he/she /it has stop caring for you, but he/s/i believes in not messing with the person and the conditions that he/s/i invented. We are on our own and in that way do not interfere with what the natural order provides. Pray if you wish, but I only say prayers of thanks for having the opportunity to have a life.

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

      It is not healthy for adults to play make-believe.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • No Gods, No Masters

      First of all prayer does nothing. It just make a person feel better. I can do that by reading a book, exercising, or even just taking a bath. Just read a little about plane crashes and survivor rates.

      Secondly, in response to your posted name, I don't remember hearing about those Atheist extremists murdering thousands on 9/11 or killing dozens of people in Scandinavia.

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

      ... usually for the worse.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  15. Diane Smith

    My mother had ALS. I watched her slow and horrific death over a period of 6 years. She had a hard life, sacrificed everything for her children, worked at menial jobs and kept an entire family going – and this is her reward? I was a religious person before this. Now I am proud to say I'm an atheist because no loving god would put any of his creations through this. This pastor needs to realize the jesus he reveres was nothing but a gifted charlatan.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Tr1Xen

      I'm atheist too, but I guess I feel like if religion gives some people the necessary comfort to deal with the world, rather than forcing themselves to awaken to harsh reality, I'm fine with it.

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

      While I can appreciate your pain having watched members of my own family suffer, you're looking at it from the wrong context. Death was her release from everything she endured through life. God called her home to relieve her of her suffering and reward her for her life of service and pain.

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

      Diane – Believing in God makes no logical sense. But believing there ISN'T a God makes no logical sense either. The truth is, we really don't know either way. That's why agnosticism – and not atheism- is the only logical philosophy.

      Also – in regards to your mother. Just because you don't believe in a "god" does not mean there isn't an afterlife. After all, we got THIS life, didn't we? Is getting a second life any harder to believe that getting a first one? Yes, your mother suffers – but we all do in the end, that is the nature of life. I wish her and you the best.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  16. Jonas Suroso

    In regard to non-believers, please stop ridiculing bible. Look at yourselves before you write something. You are all worse than the Taliban in terms of trashing bible and ridiculing Christianity. This world will never be a peaceful place even with the domination of non-believers because you all are inflicting anger towards people with different ideals. Just look at yourself first.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Diane Smith

      Oh, believe me, sir, I did. I did much soul searching and study. I came to the conclusion that I am free, enlightened and intelligent. I follow the good and right way, believing in only the golden rule and have become a better person since I embraced atheism. To each his own. If you want to believe in the bible and jesus, go right ahead.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      I've looked within & I've looked outside myself & come to realize that all people have a right to their own beliefs. However the most important thing is that ones belief does not give them the right to impose their belief on others. That is why I speak against religion since religion constantly imposes itself on the will of others. My disapproval is not of your religion, it's of your imposing it on others.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • The Half Baked Lunatic

      Chrisitianity is idiotic and the bible is a bunch of fairy tales written to control and pacify the weak minded. The idea of a 'god' is so ridiculous it's not even worthy of serious consideration. Should I continue?

      February 19, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • reason

      Do not confuse ridicule with anger. All organized religion IS ridiculous which is why it requires blind faith. Any belief system not based on reason does not deserve respect, especially when it is used to harm others.

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

      “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”
      ― Thomas Jefferson

      February 19, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  17. TampaMel

    Religion aside and while I will admit that it is tragic when anyone contracts a chronic disease of any kind then told it would eventually take ons life it is particularly tragic when you are told that disease is ALS. You are left with a healthy mind trapped in a body where you increasingly lose the ability to control. It must be like being trapped in a room and you are in a box and you are further bound in the box to the point of immobility. It is difficult to see how anyone keeps their sanity and their dignity. My sympathy goes out to these people and their families.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  18. Sherri Hutchens

    Ed Dobson is one of the finest men I have ever known. I am glad God chose to use him speaking to thousands and 1:1. Neither is more important than the other just showing God's love in different ways. I am one who was ministered to for 4 very impressionable years of my life. He is the REAL deal. For those who sadly don't believe in God, I am sad for you and your eternal soul.

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

      Tell me which God is the father of all. Is it the Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist........ If you say Christian than you say 3/4 or more of the world is wrong. Jesus, and Mohammed were great men and stand for great values and have helped humankind through dark days.

      Yes there must be a creator of all, science can not explain all. Believe me, I am a scientist and some things are just unexplainable, perhaps for a reason. But there is no right or wrong religion. Peace will come to our world when humakind understands this.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  19. Hopeful

    It almost sounds as if Mr Dobson is getting out of the religion business and finally finding his faith, that ministering to others has to be on a personal level and not an exercise in mass communication.

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

      Either that or he's questioning his faith. He might be angry at his imaginary sky fairy for giving him ALS. Someone like him would never admit it though because he knows that his religious family and friends would turn against him in an instant.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  20. Ron D-

    "this is not how he thought he would react to news of his own immortality."
    I believe it is being faced with his MORTALITY, not his Immortality, that is driving him today.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Mike P

      But Christians believe death is merely taking the step from this mortal life into an imperishable, immortal life in God's kingdom, so in a way the news of his impending death would have basically told him, "Your immortality is going to start sooner than you thought it would."

      February 19, 2012 at 12:54 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.