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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. jesus cate

    Other than the multiple typos, this was an interesting perspective. A clever man who fed his family through suckers who believe in christ/religion, and continues to do so. Seems like he is now learning the "lesson" of humbleness. I interpret from the article that he is "trying" to realize that one on one communication is as effective as "preaching" the masses. It is sad that "god" had to use that disease to "teach" him another "lesson". One on one IS THE ONLY way to make a difference in this world....duh!

    February 19, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • wolfpackbob

      I doubt your compassion is inspiring to all atheists.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  2. Joe

    I find the headline very misleading on this one – and I'm sure it was done on purpose. Correct me if I'm wrong but one's first gut instinct when reading the headline is that the pastor is reconsidering his entire faith in Christ since being confronted with this diagnosis. As in he's considering going to the dark side. After reading through the article I don't see any evidence of that at all. The man is just as strong of a Christian (as far as anyone can tell) as he ever was. Sure, his perspective has changed. Live long enough (regardless of what disease you get or don't get) and your perspective will change too! That's a reality of living. As far as not having any answers I'm not surprised at that at all. None of us are scholars in the sense that we know all the answers to the mysteries of life. Heck, we ALL don't have many answers at all and neither will we ever get them – at least on this side of Eternity. I think some people just think they have the answers.

    The point is this, from what I read here, the man's faith is just as strong as ever and he's just having difficulty adapting to the changes of life. If this is perceived as a negative I have to laugh. Y'all live long enough and regardless of your faith or unbelief your perspective will change to and you too will struggle to adapt to the changes of life. It's part of aging!

    February 19, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Shawn Irwin

      Exactly . . . . and it appears that he has still not reached the point where he has realized that ALL of humanity is in the same boat . . . Christian, Jew, Islamist, Mormon, Atheist, Agnostic, Black, White, Yellow, Gay, Straight, Male Female, etc.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  3. NAM VET

    LIFE IS TRAGIC,WE MARRY HAVE CHILDREN,WORK LIKE MAD TO MAKE IT GOOD FOR ALL AND THEN THE MEMORIES
    FROM LOSING WIFE AND CHILDREN AND THEN THE MANY TIMES THAT I CHEATED DEATH. TO ME I HAVE ALWAYS
    WONDERED WHY I AM ALWAYS SERVIVING ALL THESE YEARS. MY ONLY SOLICE IS THAT GOD HAS YET A TASK I
    AM TO DO,NOT KNOWING WHAT IT IS OR EVEN IF I HAVE DONE IT WITHOUT KNOWING IT. BUT STILL KEEP PLUGGING
    ALONG WITH FAITH AND HOPE. MY ONLY FEAR IS THAT I MAY JUST BE A WITNESS TO WHAT IS YET TO COME.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Don'tBelieveTheLiesOfReligion

      Wow – we're all so impressed by your stuck caps lock key! It sure made me realize how convincing of an effect that is!

      February 19, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • the truth

      Sorry for your loss Namvet but if you are looking for a higher power direction, that's a long wait for a train that never comes. The fact is life can suck, be hard, and sometimes cruel. The way of the universe is survival of the fittest and it doesn't care about whether you receive a reward for "being good"

      February 19, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • wolfpackbob

      Whether you belief in God or are an atheist, most would agree that treating each other with kindness and respect is foremost. Arguing what happens after our last breath is small change if we have been jerks all our life regardless if our faith was in God or our faith was in a non-god. And thanks for your service NAM VET.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  4. zeus_z

    incredible. God bless

    February 19, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  5. jasonsrogers@gmail.com

    There is no god, no afterlife. Once you die, you are nothing, and all meaning you had is no more. The only thing you can look forward to after a long life, is what kind of foot print you'll leave behind for you family and future generations, did you really make eve a little difference? Or like 99.9% of all animals that waled this Earth at one point, will you be forgotten.
    I am not so narrow-minded to entirely shrug off a force, a essence, a being intelligent or not that may have created life. Because no matter how much scientific research we do, or how much evidence we find. No human being on this Earth knows the true meaning of life, and no scientist knows what exactly life it, or how it started.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Don'tBelieveTheLiesOfReligion

      I know the "true meaning of life". You're looking at it right here >

      February 19, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • the truth

      Jason..I agree. Its the human ego that drives the belief that we are something special.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • webo

      Your wisdom and knowledge mislead you when you say to yourself, 'I am and there is none besides me'. Isaiah 47:10

      February 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  6. rock

    this is your top story CNN? Nice anti-christianity story! Do you think if you work hard enough you can convince everyone that Christianity is wrong? I'm sure you are very proud of yourself!

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

      WHAT part of it is anti-Christian?

      Go to Free Republic or Stormfront if you don't like it you FASCIST.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Nare

      what the heck are you ranting about...read the article.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • jesus cate

      seems pro jesus all the way....a few to many this morning.....you should be in church!

      February 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • TheTrueMoralMajority

      Rocky – So you are claiming this man is not a Christian? Who are you to judge?

      February 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • thes33k3r

      One doesn't have to work very hard to show that Xtianity is wrong. It just takes a little intellectual honesty to see it.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  7. bruce

    there is more.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  8. Shawn Irwin

    The more you see your own mortality, the less you are likely to fall for any prevarications that society may foist on you. The closer you are to death, the more awake you are in relation to reality. . . . What you have accomplished in life does not depend on how much money you had, what god you did or did not believe in, or who you knew; what truely matters is what you yourself have done in the interest of humanity.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Don'tBelieveTheLiesOfReligion

      And, that only "matters" as long as you exist to perceive it. There is no "meaning" or "mattering" except for what we create for ourselves. Not that that isn't good enough – it is.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Malavaina

      I think you're right. People are more worry about the unknown of death than any thing else, my question is: How about if it's better within that unknown? Pretending that life is forever is the biggest sign of ignorance. Do right or do wrong and you'll be subject of censuring. When you accept that this life itransients, death no longer remains a dark destination.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  9. bajadelmar

    Nice editing CNN. I caught many spelling and grammar mistakes. The quality is perfect for the level of intelligence of someone that would believe in an all-knowing/seeing magical sky fairy. Let's keep regressing instead of moving forward.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • jesus cate

      hahahahah :) thanks for noticing it was a test, you pass with flying colors....other than that mrs lincoln how was the play?

      February 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • bajadelmar

      Sorry I don't speak gibberish.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • pedro

      Word on the grammar mistakes. The largest international media outlet ought to be more prudent in my opinion.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  10. Prayer changes nothing

    Controlled studies have been done. Prayer = placebo.

    I can never understand the angst christians feels as they confront death, either their own or a loved one. I mean, death means someone's going to meet jesus in the kingdom of god, right? you should be looking forward to it. you should be envying people who get to die and go to glorious eternal life in the presence of god and free from sin and temptation and to meet up with all your dead friends relatives, yadda yadda. Why all the ambivalence?

    Unless, deep down....you have a leeeeetle bit of doubt about the veracity of the whole story.

    I'm so glad to be an athiest. My eyes are wide open.

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

      Someone in this mans position would never admit their undeniable doubt. It would surely be his death sentence. Most, if not all of his family and friends would abandon him.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • William

      That's probably the dumbest comment I've ever read.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • steve

      Well said!

      February 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • bajadelmar

      @William Obviously you haven't read your own comments.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • wolfpackbob

      Your confidence and certainty for the unproven non-existence of God is no different than the the faith of those for the unproven existence of God. As an atheist you have a faith no different than the faith of those you deride. Peace.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • bajadelmar

      @wolfpackbob How old are you??? Your logic is backwards. The burden of proof has always been on xians or any other religious group for that matter. So go ahead prove that your magical sky fairy exists.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Prayer changes nothing

      And rather than criticize me personally (ad hominem), then please answer my questions. Why the xtian ambivalence when it comes to death? Why not welcome it with great anticipation and joy? If I was a TRUE believer, if I TRULY believed the whole god/jesus thing, seems reasonable that I would look forward to death to free me from the misery on earth and allow me to see all my loved ones who died before me (and to hear Whitney Houston sing again, because apparently according ot everything I've read on CNN for the past 3 or 4 days she went directly there).

      February 19, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Prayer changes nothing

      And by the way, the "prayer = placebo" controlled study comment? If it turned out that "prayer > placibo", well then I might be a little bit more convinced that god exists. But I don't even need a controlled study. People the world over pray for stuff, and yet hundreds of millions live in squalor and poverty and disease and war, are killed by disasters, etc. And to say "the lord works in mysterious ways" is nothing but a post hoc explanation. A simpler more likely explanation, there is no god, no spiritual domain of any kind. When you die, it will be exactly like before you were born. You just didn't exist.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • wolfpackbob

      There is no proof for either the existence or non-existence of God. Atheists cling to their faith no less than Christians. If you are insisting on proof it is fair to pose that question to yourself. But why the hostility for a faith whose central tenet is "love thy neighbor as thyself"? I fail regularly in trying to follow that code as do most on this planet. Am I to assume that all atheists aspire to be jerks and ridicule Christians as suckers when they try, fail and try again to follow that code? I don't think so. You're no less valuable than I am and if we can treat each other with respect while we're here, arguing about the "after" after our last breath, is a waste of breath. Peace.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • dzp

      no, it just means that christians are just as human as any non-christian, non-religious persons are. nothing more nothing less

      February 19, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  11. Halo of Flies

    When I was 7 years old, I lived with my Grandmother in her old creaky house. It is said that after she bought the house, the original owner, an old man, sat in the alley every day and stared at the house until the day he died.
    One night I was sleeping in the hide-away bed in the living room when I was awakened by someone trying to open the front door. I looked and saw the door knob turning. I quickly pulled the curtains aside so I could see the front porch but there was no one there. Still, the door knob rattled and turned.
    I slipped out of bed and followed a squeaking sound into the kitchen where I saw the old linoleum kitchen floor moving up and down with invisible foot steps into a closet.

    Do you believe in ghosts?

    February 19, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Prayer changes nothing

      i believe in people having delusions and hallucinations etc. Perhaps you forgot to take your antipsychotic that night?

      February 19, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  12. joel

    I am not a christian. I am at a loss of words. I am not sure what the article meant by "rethinks christianity."
    It sounds more like it should be "realizes his humility." It sounds like the realization that he is like everyone else, not immuned to disease and illness. Realization that to be stricken with a fatal illness is not a punishment of God. It sounds like he is learning humanity. He is learning that he is like everyone else. He is learning he has no less a mortal fate as an atheist.
    His story isn't so great. It's common among us "common" folk. Welcome to the real world Mr. Dobson.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  13. matt

    John Gabriel – I was just at church this morning thinking about how refreshing and loving it is to be there – a truly loving environment – you should consider reading the Gospel of John and see how the words and actions of Jesus were intended to turn the world upside down – I think you would appreciate what you see and read –

    I'm sorry that you feel the way you do about the Bible and religion – I hope that you will find moments of surpise from people of faith around you -

    February 19, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  14. dan

    This is a story about courage. This man isn't throwing his faith or lack of it in anyone's face. He has more to worry about than people using sick humor or lecuturing him about his faith. I don't care what you believe, show a little class along the way. We all have it coming and never know how our end wil be.

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

      Get the facts straight. Atheists and agnostics in this country are not out brainwashing people, forcing and controlling them to believe as they do or suffer dire consequences. Those kinds of underhanded tactics come directly from xians.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  15. Average American

    And the point of this article is????

    I can only assume it is propaganda leveled at Christianity.

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

      Skip the paranoia, read the article, and you won't have to assume.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  16. Rich

    Maybe some of your right wing buddies can comfort you.Oh thats right they don't call anymore,must have used you up.......

    February 19, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  17. Gerard

    Every Christian knows that our sinful bodies must die so that our spirit may live. We are promised a new body and eternal life–therefore let us embrace death.

    " So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption:
    15:43 It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power:
    15:44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body."

    February 19, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  18. Sean

    For those who say there is no God fail to see the creation around them. Everything so beautiful (including yourselves) are not mere accidents. You denying god will not eliminate him. And for everyone, just once pray to THE GOD to show your guidence. Not through the church or synagog or masjid or temple. Just from your heart, ask God to show you the way. If done sincerely, he will show you the way.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Don'tBelieveTheLiesOfReligion

      I see design in the world but not miraculous creation. That design is the product of time and

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

      Someone will point out that our standards of beauty arise from nature which can, in their opinion, arise without God at all.

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

      yeah, if you believe in fairy tales enough, I hear those come true too...
      you can keep deluding yourself, but don't spread your nonsense to others

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

      hmmmmmmmmm....design is a product of time??? Was just thinking how that old wrecked Cadillac in local junkyard is becoming more beautiful over time:)

      February 19, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  19. Evonix

    "news of his own immortality"?

    Surely the author meant to write "mortality".

    February 19, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  20. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Don'tBelieveTheLiesOfReligion

      Sure does – it makes you poorer as you feed your religious fantasy by giving $ to those who are willing to tell you what you want to hear, regardless of a lack of evidence.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:08 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.