Dieter Zander was a rising star among pastors in America. He pioneered one of the first GenX churches in America in the 1980's. Then he developed "Axis," a ministry for the "Baby Busters" at Willowcreek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois, where I grew up. On the wings of all his great success he moved to San Francisco to help pastors and ministry leaders re-think church ministry, especially to the younger generation.
Sometime around 1995 on one one of my trips from Southern California to visit my family in Chicago I went to Willocreek and saw Dieter perform at the piano and pulpit to hundreds of twenty-somethings, including my younger twin brothers. I couldn't believe it when I walked into the sanctuary! The energy in the room nearly knocked me off my feet! It was loud! I felt the music pounding in my body. And the message from Dieter brought cheers from the crowd.
I could see why Dieter was in such demand as a musician, speaker, and author. It seemed that everyone wanted to listen to him perform and to hear what he had to say.
A Stroke of Grace
But then Dieter Zander suffered a major stroke and went into a coma on February 4, 2008. Six days later he awoke as a different man. His crippled right hand couldn't play the piano. He couldn't sing. He couldn't even speak — except very slowly and painfully to mumble a stuttering string of unrelated words.
Dieter's stage was gone. The applause he thrived on was gone. The opportunity to use his talents and earn a living were gone. Gone. It seemed everything was all gone.
Yet, inside Dieter was still the same person. His brilliant and creative mind was completely in tact. He had the same emotions, the same sense of humor, the same wit and eloquence, but he hand a bungling mouth. It tired people out trying to understand him. One-by-one they went away.
Isolation set in. He was sealed off from the rest of the world behind the wall that is called aphasia. He was in solitary confinement inside his own head.
Alone, Dieter heard the still, small voice of the Lord: "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). Years later he wrote, "All those thoughts, those fears, those jokes that I couldn't bring to life outside my head, God heard them. I felt his comfort, his peace, and even his laughter." (A Stroke of Grace by Dieter Zander and LaDonna Witmer.)
A Kingdom of Cardboard and Spoils
Without his ministry platform, Dieter learned to live a simpler, slower life. His first job after the stroke was to work as a crossing guard to help children in the neighborhood get to school. Then he worked at Trader Joe's.
And God taught him new lessons about loving his neighbor for Jesus' sake. He calls this a Kingdom of Cardboard and Spoils.
It's About the Kingdom of God
I'm sure you can hear that Dieter's inner voice is stronger than ever! He has shown us that to worship God isn't something we do on a stage — it's the way we love the person near us when nobody is looking. To worship the Lord is not about loud music that makes us feel excited and blessed — it's about bringing our true self to the true God (John 4:24). In Dieter's story we see an example of what the cross of Jesus Christ looks like in daily life.
Jesus can help each of us to bring our own kingdom of cardboard and spoils into God's kingdom, the spiritual realm all around us where what God wants done is done. What a blessing this is! "The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17).
Dieter is still able to serve God creatively and as an artist — even if at times he relies on someone to help him express his words. The main way he communicates what God shows him today is as a photographer. You can see his Photoblog on his website. A Stroke of Grace is Dieter Zander's short, inspiring and picture-filled book that tells his story.