When Calvary Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan, called Ed Dobson as their pastor 14 years ago, they welcomed a man whose bold nature and strong opinions had already sparked controversy nationwide. Ed was a leader in the Moral Majority and an associate of Jerry Falwell. When he came to Calvary, the church began launching ministries that defied stereotype and convention—across racial lines, to AIDS patients, and to the homeless.
Today Calvary Church has grown in size and influence. They recently released nearly a thousand members to help plant Mars Hill, a church for those disillusioned with the typical Sunday morning meeting house.
Calvary Church is going strong. But its pastor is growing weaker.
Ten months ago Ed was waiting on a diagnosis. Symptoms of something ominous were growing worse. The doctors couldn't be absolutely sure, but they determined Ed most likely was suffering from Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The neuro-muscular disease is a debilitating, degenerating condition with no known cure and only one known outcome—death.
Today, Ed is still waiting—Ed and his family and his church. Though his condition has stabilized and he maintains the strength to do ministry, Ed's health could begin deteriorating again at any time.
Leadership editors Marshall Shelley, Eric Reed, and Drew Zahn traveled to Grand Rapids to probe the prayer life of a man and a church walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
What happens to your prayer life when you're diagnosed with a terminal disease?
When the doctors said they were 99 percent sure I had ALS, I began realizing I might have only a couple of months to a couple of years left, and most of that time would likely be miserable as I watch my body slowly quit on me. My natural assumption was that this suffering would lift my prayer life to levels it had never known before.
The truth was, I didn't feel like praying. I didn't feel like talking to God.
Near Bethany in Israel, I once visited a place called Lazarus's tomb, where you can walk down a winding stone staircase into a cave at the bottom that leads to a deep, dark, first-century tomb. You can crawl in and find yourself confined in that narrow, dark space.
When the doctor said, "You will lose your ability to walk, to sit up, to swallow, to breathe, and all we can do is help you manage the pain," I went through several months where I felt like I was in Lazarus's tomb—cold, dark, trapped.
You'd think my first instinct would be to pray for healing. I couldn't even bring myself to ask. I prayed for wisdom, because of all the medical options. But I didn't pray for healing for a long time.
Were you angry?
No, I was never angry. There was a woman in our church who lost two husbands while she was still young. She had little children.
At the funeral for her second husband, she got up and said, "I have chosen not to ask why. I don't want to waste what limited energy I have on a question for which I don't think I'll get an answer."
After I was diagnosed, I told her how much her words meant to me. So from day one I chose not to ask, Why, God? because I feared that had the potential of causing anger. So, no, I've never been angry.
How did you crawl out of Lazarus's tomb?
That's a journey that really began before I was diagnosed. Three summers ago I had a friend who challenged me to think of the journey of faith not as a Christian life, but as a Christian walk. David argued that we can "live" passively, but choosing to "walk" a journey is a deliberate decision made moment by moment. He was so convinced that we needed to understand this that he proposed we go on a pilgrimage, a walking tour all over Israel.