I had just graduated college, and I didn’t know what to do next. I’d spent four years earning a degree in political science, thinking I would go off to Washington, D.C. and join the front lines of the culture wars.
But one year during college, I got a taste of the action, working for a conservative religious lobby a few blocks from the White House. After that, I wasn’t sure I wanted another taste—for many reasons, one of which I wrote about here.
It was a pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who showed me another way—or at least, helped me to imagine another way.
After graduation, I had a job offer from the lobbying group I had worked at two summers before. That’s when I read a book called Blinded by Might by Ed Dobson (co-written with Cal Thomas). Ed was the pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids and a former assistant to Jerry Falwell, chief architect of the Religious Right.
Ed argued that he and his fellow Christians were wrong to get sucked into the culture wars. We were wrong, he suggested, to automatically assume God was on our side.
Ed was bold enough to say what most of us didn’t want to admit: our activism was less about building the common good and more about accumulating power for ourselves. He urged the church to relinquish its addiction to power so it could become the church again.
I still have Ed’s book, along with a letter James Dobson (no relation to Ed) wrote, attacking him for challenging the infallibility of the Religious Right. (It should be noted that Ed’s personal views at the time were not much different from the other Dobson’s. Instead, the two differed on something bigger: the mission and identity of the church.)
Ed’s book convinced me to give up what would have been a self-serving career in politics. I opted for seminary instead, partly so I could buy more time to figure out what to do with my life. I spent the next three years studying theology at a school across the street from Ed’s church.
I only met Ed once, when I thanked him for writing his book. But his influence helped reset the trajectory of my life.
Ed died last week after a 15-year battle with ALS.
Having spent the better part of those 15 years in Grand Rapids, I’ve followed Ed’s journey from a relatively short distance. His journey did not end when he walked away from the Religious Right. It did not end when he was diagnosed with ALS. It did not end when illness forced him to retire as pastor of Calvary Church.
Ed kept going. He kept exploring. He kept pursuing Jesus. He once spent a year trying to live exactly as Jesus did.
Ed did things most evangelical pastors would not. He joined hands with the LGBTQ community to fight AIDS—at a time when most pastors offered them nothing but hate and condemnation. He worked to bridge the racial divide in the church and beyond.
When evangelicals leapt on Rob Bell for his controversial book Love Wins, Ed refused to take pot shots at the pastor he had once mentored. Instead, he responded simply by quoting Jesus’ words in Luke 9: “Do not stop him, for whoever is not against you is for you.”
When Ed’s son came out, telling his parents, “I’m gay, I still love Jesus, and nothing else changes,” Ed responded, “We still love you, and nothing else changes.”
As his ALS progressed, Ed’s “parish” shrank in some ways—in ways that might seem important to some. But it grew in other, more significant ways. Ed ministered to people on a more intimate scale. His shared his story to encourage those who were walking through their own darkest valleys.
All things considered, the book Ed wrote in 1999 is probably one of the smaller parts of his legacy. But I would not be where I am today if not for that book. I would not have been given such a powerful example of how to live like Jesus, if not for Ed’s story.
As one of Ed’s sons shared on Facebook recently, “There’s seven billion people on this planet, and [Ed] loved every last one of them.”
Rest in peace, Ed. Great is your reward.
Photo credit: Ed’s Story