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. ReligionIs4Dolts

    With all the genetic mistakes and sick, twisted, sadistic means of torturing human beings during their lifetimes (diseases, whether congenital or acquired over time, common "benign" ailments such as myopia, crooked teeth, too many teeth to even fit in the allotted space in the jaw, ugliness, foul body odor, women with mustaches and unsightly body hair, etc.) is proof that either (1) there is no god and existence is random and meaningless, or (2) there is a god and it is (a) an slack-jawed, inexperienced idiot of an apprentice who was making a practice run at creation, or (b) not worth worship because it is a selfish, childish, tantrum-throwing torture fiend!

    February 19, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  2. me

    I am myself facing a similar situation, but have yet to have als as a diagnosis. It is rare, just read the words of those who have never faced such! Yet have you seen mercy, you have survived longer than science expected, you can still walk and talk. And you have an angel to care for you! I have also found it difficult to read from the bible, yet the wisdom in the words has the only relevant facts. What seems a curse to most, seems a blessing to those who realise that the bible isn't just words, it's words to live by! What you realise is We are all dying- some at a different rate, yet the fact remains. And as the song goes, live like you are dying,- cause you are! By your own words "you grew in understanding". Well, let those who have ears, hear. If anything I have learned, pray all you want, just don't tell God how to answer. The most surprising thing to learn is, you're not as smart as you think! Most of us can't conceive of our own mortality, yet there it is... the most intelligent thing i've ever heard, "Do unto others..."

    February 19, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  3. j mann

    we all die. and the same thing happens to every living thing when it dies. human beings are not as special as they imagine. no special place is reserved for a man who believes a certain way. to believe that is the height of egotism. imagine thinking you will go to heaven and your neighbor, a good man that does not believe the way you do is going to hell. medieval much?

    February 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  4. Ed

    Good your dying. One less brain washer. Your a joke and looser.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Yamo

      Tru dat

      February 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Joink

      LMAO, you are dying too and (I guess) don't even know it. Reality is, you may die before him...fire, car crash, heart attack, mauled by dogs or a million other ways. Just remember, there's no internet or ipads after you die.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  5. Marcia

    This whole thing about religion, death , etc.. Well you find out on the other side of death what is what. Until than be patient.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  6. Walee

    We all need time to think about the purpose of our lives no matter what your choice of faith. I believe each one of us should take a day or a vacation to just be alone with your thoughts and your higher power before we pass away.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Frank

      Good suggestion, but won't work for the young crowd. They wouldn't be able to put their phones down long enough.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  7. Julia

    Tertullian wrote: “They take the Christians to be the cause of every disaster to the State, of every misfortune of the people. If the Tiber reaches the walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the sky doesn’t move or the earth does, if there is famine, if there is plague, the cry is at once: ‘The Christians to the lion!’”

    February 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  8. Gabriel

    How fitting, a wolf in sheep's clothing spewing wickedness to the masses on a Sunday. How fitting indeed.

    "Many false prophets have gone out into the world.."

    February 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Supa-Krist-Yun

      What in the F O O K are you talking about?

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

      I don't know if there is an antidote to the amount of malignant bile built up in your system... good luck.

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

    "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 immortality."

    the last word should be mortality. unless god visited him and shared a gift he only granted elijah

    February 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  10. Joink

    Ok, if we just take blood, for instance. Seems like a simple thing, right? It's just a liquid flowing through veins. We are in the age of great minds, wonderful scientists, thinkers and inventors. Heck, we are totally connected with the internet and massively smart. We have scientist that can lol "explain" everything but yet none of them can create blood. Why do you think we have blood donation? Because the great scientists can't even create that. Even if they could, it would only be duplicating something that was already created. Don't tell me about your great scientists that have to rely on people donors to do something as simple as replenishing blood in a human body. God is great and much better than the scientists, and clowns, that try to disprove him with clipboards and theories. You can't get out of a trap until you realize you are in one, lol.

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

      I hate to burst your bubble, but we DO have artificial blood. It's just easier and cheaper to donate. Nice try, though.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • j mann

      your stone age logic is truly impressive.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I think you're the one in the trap called ignorance, honey.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Jeph

      Us scientists and engineers (as a whole, not some delusional few) have never claimed to be, or will be able to completely replace God.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Bizarre

      @joink - see post to @DC down the page...

      February 19, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • BoboDesi

      That is such a simplistic-juvenile even- argument. So your proof of the existence of a god is the fact that there happens to be things in the natural world we don't understand? A few centuries ago, the notion that a man could be placed on the moon would be blasphemy, today that is old history...been there, done that! The world evolves and so does our understanding of it. Man's biggest plight is his inability to accept himself as a mere speck on the deep galactic unknown and nothing more.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Joink

      Logic, that's really funny. A person can't be pumped full of artificial blood and go out into the world and live. You don't even have margarine compared to butter. They invented a quick fix to keep someone alive for a short time. You need to find another tree to bark up or let some doctor/scientist replace all your blood with the artificial stuff and go on your way.....lmao, how ridiculous.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • LogicRules

      Your ignorance is truly astounding. Luckily for the rest of us, your ignorance doesn't impede the progress of science.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • LogicRules

      We can create entire organs from scratch in a laboratory, but because you don't understand how blood works, science is a sham. Lovely.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  11. omar

    Allah swt sent Prophets to warn people and give them the glad tidings. Qur’an has mentioned that there were many Prophets sent down to earth… for every people and every nation… Out of them, only 25 are named in Qur’an.
    One of the Prophets mentioned is Prophet Ayyub (or Prophet Job) as.
    The story of Prophet Ayyub (as) is a wonderful example of how we should all deal with calamities.
    There is no one of us who has not experienced loss. Loss of life, wealth, health. We all face difficulties. How we react and how we act is our test.
    In Sura Al-Baqara, verses 155-157, Allah subhanallahu
    ta’ala reminds us:
    Be sure We shall test you with something of fear and
    hunger; some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of
    your toil) but give glad tidings to those who patiently
    persevere. Who say when afflicted with calamity:
    “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhir raji-oon”
    “To Allah we belong and to Him is our return.”
    They are those on whom (descend) blessings from Allah
    and Mercy and they are the ones that receive guidance.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Cletus

      tell us more Omar. I am a Christian but i dont mind hearing about the Quran.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  12. jonh

    God bless you pastor Ed. True inspiration...

    February 19, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  13. TheTraveler

    Mr. Dobson, the doctors gave you three years, God has given you more. I suspect it was so you could find another purpose to serve Him, as you have, and to solidify your faith in Him personally, away from the crowds. I believe salvation is a private matter, a one on one relationship with God, affirming total trust and faith in our Heavenly Father. Secondly, our Lord Jesus had his moment of doubt and pain as well and he is the Son of God. Jesus triumphed and you can take strength from that too.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • sheep

      reading from a script?, this is a very boring statement

      February 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      The spiritual tend to live longer because it seems the sub-conscious is able to push the body beyond its endurance point. My mom lived two weeks longer than she shud have we were told by doctors. There is something in loving your neighbor as yourself.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      More unsubstantiated BS from the biggest producer of methane here.

      February 19, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  14. DC

    I think this story should appeal to both religious and non-religious individuals. What he is saying is that christianity is not just worship and prayer, it is interaction with people no matter who they are or what beliefs they subscribe to. As a non-religious person, I was impressed by what he was saying. If there is a god and Christianity has been right all along, I think this god would rather us help each other and not spend so much time worshipping him than have us worship him everyday and do nothing or do harm to the rest of humanity which many religious groups have done. It's something for all of us to think about.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Bizarre

      DC - Reposting this just for you...

      This is how "God", the almighty physician and scientist, deals with disease:

      In Leviticus 14, the Lord spoke to Moses about how to treat and cure leprosy – it is some of the dangedest, silliest hokum that you'd ever want to read. This was the LORD speaking, folks – the LORD – how dare anyone search for a better treatment!

      Get two birds. Kill one. Dip the live bird in the blood of the dead one. Sprinkle the blood on the leper seven times, and then let the blood-soaked bird fly away. Next find a lamb and kill it. Wipe some of its blood on the patient's right ear, thumb, and big toe. Sprinkle seven times with oil and wipe some of the oil on his right ear, thumb and big toe. Repeat. Finally find another pair of birds. Kill one and dip the live bird in the dead bird's blood. Wipe some blood on the patient's right ear, thumb, and big toe. Sprinkle the house with blood 7 times. That's all there is to it!

      February 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Walee

      Yes I agree.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Walee

      I agree with you DC.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Bizarre

      Drat! That was supposed to be for @joink above...

      February 19, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  15. AGuest9

    Alzheimers scares me more. At least with ALS, you don't lose your mind. Stephen Hawking has showed us what is possible.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • betty cramer

      I used to think that ! then my 47 year old husband od 25 years got ALS, diagnosis to death 3 years and 2 weeks. First symptom was slurred speech and weak finfers in May 2007, death sentence given June,2007. ny end of 2008 this strong beautiful man could only move his eyes. Could not talk,walk,or swallow, BUT his mind was perfect. tell me that's not cruel! We communicated by me counting blinks for an alphabet, arduous but worth it. We discussed that the cruelest part of this disease is watching your body die around you, and KNOWING it. As an RN i cared for those with alzheimers, horrid disease yes, but those inflicted, including my deceased dad and his 2 sisters, have the blessing to lose awareness of their progress and fate. And yes I do mean blessed.And Mr. Hawking does NOT have true ALS, he has PLS, a nonfatal less progress variant of motor neuron disease. No one lives that long with ALS, a few survive 10-15 years if they go on a ventilator early and do not get pneumonia. When we joined our ALS clinic in Charlotte NC in August 2007 there were approx. 150 patients with various stages, as of May of 2011 when I visited them not ONE is among us. ALS MUST be stopped.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  16. Halo of Flies

    Humans are parasites. We have short life spans during which we do much to sicken our host. Then we die, but not before breeding. Eventually we will kill the host.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  17. Jay

    There is something else- we cannot understand it. It's not in a building or a book. It's beyond our grasp while we bear mortality.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • The Big Fat One

      Can you be more specific?

      February 19, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  18. Reality

    Only for the newbies:

    The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (References used are available upon request.)

    February 19, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • sans diety

      god is a joke the believers are the punchline.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  19. ween

    thanks for the article. wonder why he "prays less as he approaches death". scary stuff though. i wish him well...

    February 19, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Oh Yeah

      Maybe it's because he's realized that life is too short to waste time doing useless, silly things?

      February 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  20. Joe

    There is no god, no afterlife. Once you die, you are nothing, and all meaning you had is no more
    Good to see somebody has it all figured out. I say that in jest, of course.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • AGuest9

      "In jest" because you can't handle the truth?

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

      We can create our own afterlife, the abyss of death is a big dream...who is sending me to hell again? Oh that's right, no one but me if I so choose

      February 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • jason83

      and you have 100% proof of this? Or are you trying to put your two sense into this like every other moron. The man is dying, and this what you type. Joe, go to ****.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
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About this blog

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.