GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The Rev. Ed Dobson has spent most of his life following Jesus. But only now does he realize how hard it is to live like him.
The retired megachurch pastor and one-time architect of the religious right has spent the last year trying to eat, pray, talk and even vote as Jesus would. His revelation: Being Jesus is tough.
“I’ve concluded that I am a follower, but I’m not a very good one,” Dobson said. “If you get serious about the Bible, it will really mess you up.”
But a year of living like Jesus has affected Dobson in deeply spiritual and unexpected ways.
He has witnessed for Jesus in bars, picked up strangers needing rides and voted for a Democrat who he believes best reflects Christ’s teachings. During recent Christmas celebrations, as Christians worshipped the Christ child born in a manger, Dobson appreciated more than ever the man who preached love, only to die on a cross.
“Everybody loves a baby,” mused Dobson, 58. “But when you start reading the teachings of this baby, and about the sufferings of this baby, you begin to understand better who he is.”
Dobson has known suffering. He was diagnosed in 2001 with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Neither its deteriorating effects nor his work as a vice president at a local Christian university deterred his determination to emulate Jesus.
Cornerstone University President Joseph Stowell, who hired Dobson as vice president for spiritual formation last spring, said he admires Dobson’s commitment, but is not surprised by it. It reflects his longtime friend’s desire to “live outside the box” despite his health challenges.
“God often uses suffering to drive us deeper,” Stowell said. “Ed’s disease has put a heart-and-head focus on a deeper walk with God through the person of Jesus.”
Dobson never knew how demanding that walk could be until he resolved to take it — and found it took him in unexpected directions.
He decided to devote a year to living like Jesus after reading “The Year of Living Biblically,” A.J. Jacobs’ best-selling account of obeying Bible commands as literally as possible. If a non-religious Jew could do it, Dobson decided, so could a practicing Christian.
That meant following Old Testament laws about eating, clothing and behavior, since Jesus was a Jew whose followers created Christianity. Observing kosher dietary requirements to not mix meat and dairy products, Dobson gave up his beloved chicken-and-cheese burritos.
“I can’t wait to order it for the first time” in the new year, he said with a chuckle.
The normally teetotaling Dobson also allowed himself an occasional drink, noting Jesus was accused by critics of being a “glutton and a drunkard” who partied with pagans.
“If I’m at a party with a bunch of people who don’t know the Lord and they offer me a beer, I’ll take it,” said Dobson, adding, “People at bars are wide open to talk about anything, including God.”
Dobson celebrated Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur and Passover and often prayed at a synagogue. He refrained from work and travel as much as possible on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, but made an exception to watch his grandchildren’s soccer games.
Obeying the biblical command not to trim beards, he let his grow as long and shaggy as an Orthodox rabbi’s.
“It’s a pain in the neck when you’re eating spaghetti,” he cracked.
But a messy beard was the easy part of living like Jesus.
“The hard part is trying to live up to his teachings,” Dobson said. “I’ve realized how far I fall short.”
The man who preached for 18 years at Calvary Church re-read the four Gospels every week. He took to heart Jesus’ commands to help the poor and visit the imprisoned. He also heeded his warning that only those who do God’s work will enter heaven.
“Jesus is a very troubling individual,” Dobson said.
Jesus’ troubling teachings influenced him to vote for Barack Obama — his first vote for a Democrat for president. Though disagreeing with Obama on abortion, he said, “I felt, as an individual, he was closer to the spirit of Jesus’ teachings than anyone else. (Obama) was a community organizer, so he was into the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, which Jesus is very much into.”
But living the Jesus life was more personal than political. He prayed daily, repeatedly reciting “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me” — the plea of a blind man Jesus healed.
He doesn’t pray to be healed of ALS but relies on God’s goodness to help him through the slowly debilitating disease. His frame grows thinner and his hands weaker by the day. Focusing on Jesus helps.
“I’m getting up every day not worried about what doesn’t work; I’m getting up concerned about how do I live out this Jesus stuff.”
The “Jesus stuff” has been good for Dobson, said his wife, Lorna.
“I respect him highly for doing that, but I always have respected his desire to do what he learns from the Word and his relationship with the Lord,” she said.
Dobson said he hopes this time of economic hardship will make people think more about a savior who came to help the poor and hungry and who wants his followers to do the same.
And, while he looks forward to cutting his beard and eating burritos in the new year, he won’t forget what he has learned from Jesus.
“I intend to keep trying to live out his teachings in the new year,” he said, “even more seriously than right now, if that’s possible.”
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January 8th, 2009 by Joel