When he stepped out of his church on Christmas Day, 2011, Dan Chambers had no idea that he had just preached his final sermon at that congregation. All he knew was that he needed a vacation. He and his family were heading south, to the Texas hill country outside San Antonio. There they’d unwrap presents with family, get a little R&R, and drive back to Illinois in a week or two.
That was the plan—the plan that never came to be.
Dan never made it back to Illinois. He never made it back to his home, his parish, or his pulpit. In fact, until almost three years later, Dan wouldn’t preach in any church at all. Four days after he’d proclaimed that Christmas sermon, he would go to a hospital in San Antonio because of severe stomach pains. He would be admitted. Doctors would discover that, due to complications stemming from a prior surgery, an infection had spread throughout Dan’s abdomen. And, very soon, he would come face-to-face with death while lying on a bed in the ICU. He would endure countless surgeries over the next few months and years to help repair damage caused by the infection. And, the deepest blow of all, he would lose his ability to stand on his own two feet and walk wherever he wanted to go.
All in all, Dan would spend the next 580 days in the hospital.
The first time I stood beside Dan, he was still in ICU. We had some catching up to do. I had been one of his professors at the seminary several years before. I remembered him as a second career student, a hard worker, a BBQ aficionado, and one of those guys who had a knack for always making you smile. We visited a few minutes in the hospital that day. We shared a word from our Lord. We prayed together. He was weak, to be sure, and had difficulty talking, but everyone was optimistic that, any day now, his condition would improve.
It didn’t. The next time I saw Dan, he was barely responsive. I put on my game face while I was speaking with him and praying for healing, but when I walked out of the hospital I lost it. I sat in my car and wept. I’ve never told Dan this, but on that day I was sure I wouldn’t see my friend alive again in this world.
Oh, the things we think we’re sure of. Little did I know what a fighter that man was. Little did I realize that the Lord was far from finished using this minister of the Gospel. And little did I comprehend how much Dan, who once sat in my classroom, would teach me—would teach me about bearing the cross, about the grace of Christ, and about how the strength of the Lord is made perfect in our weakness.
Over the course of those 580 days in various medical facilities, Dan lost many things. He lost his health. He lost his call to his congregation. He lost his ability to walk. But even in the midst of these losses, Dan kept many gifts that are more, much more, precious. He kept his family. His amazing wife, Karen, and their teenage children, Drew and Delani, have walked beside him and upheld him every step of this long, arduous journey together. He kept his dear friends. The people who love Dan—his BBQ brethren, his classmates, his lifelong buddies—have prayed for him, called him, visited him, raised funds for him and his family, did whatever they could to show him that he was far from alone in his sufferings. He kept his brothers in the ministry. On a regular basis, Pastor Mark Barz of Crown of Life Lutheran Church in San Antonio and Pastor Tom Winter of St. Peter Lutheran Church in Pearsall, have shared God’s word with him, brought him Holy Communion, spoken forgiveness and grace and healing to him.
But not only has Dan kept his family, his friends, and his brothers in the ministry; he has given back to us all tenfold. If you know Dan, you have your own story of how the Lord has used him to bless you. Let me tell you what he has done for me. He reminded me of who I really am. I lost my way several years ago. And when I first started visiting Dan, the Lord was still gently shepherding me back into his fold. Dan reminded me—in his words, in his patient suffering, through his unwavering faith in Christ, by his confidence in his baptism—that Jesus Christ does not abandon his own. No matter where they are, no matter what they’re going through, He is there. He crawls into hospital beds with us to hold us as we quake in pain. He sinks down into the pits into which we have fallen to carry us back out. He squeezes all of who he is into faith as tiny as a mustard seed. Dan welcomed me as a friend when others have treated me as spoiled goods. In a word, he was, and still is, one through whom the Friend of Sinners speaks to me. And if you are someone who has, in any way, benefited from my writings, you can thank Dan Chambers, because he encouraged me to take up my pen and begin writing again.
Today Dan lives in his own home in San Antonio with his family. Although he has made great progress toward recovery, he still faces many serious health problems. His prayer, and ours, is that one day the Lord will work enough healing in his body so that he can walk again. As Dan recently commented on Facebook, “I believe completely that I will walk again. That is a fact. I just don’t know if God is going to let me walk on this earth again, or if I have to wait for the New Earth. But I will walk again.”
Today, November 29, 2015, almost four years after he stepped out of his church in Illinois, Dan will once more officially begin shepherding a congregation again. Evangelists Lutheran Church in Kingsbury, TX, has called him to serve as their pastor. He will be installed this afternoon. Among God’s people, he will proclaim the Good News of the crucified and resurrected Lord who has carried him through these last four, trying years. He will preach a Gospel that is not handicapped—a Gospel that is powerful in its seeming weakness, wise in its seeming foolishness, the story of God who became one of us, that he might redeem us as his own. He will baptize sinners into the saving body of Jesus Christ. He will feed them the medicine of immortality in the Lord’s Supper.
Dan Chambers is a pastor whom the Lord raised up to bear witness to all of us that, no matter what we lose in this life, we cannot lose life itself, for he who is our life—Jesus the Christ—will never let us go.