A Kingdom of Cardboard and Spoils (Dieter Zander’s Story)

Do you feel that you need to perform well to be loved? Do you feel the pressure of living up to an ideal self?

For Pastors the pressure of people’s expectations can be crushing. Other leaders, caregivers, and all kinds of people may feel the pressure to perform. Many of us “know” that God’s grace and unconditional love are for us, but we struggle to experience it.

I’d like to share with you the story of a pastor and worship leader who says that he got caught up in performing on stage. He didn’t know how live out his theology of grace. After a crisis God taught him what it really means to Worship God and to Love Our Neighbor.

A Rising Star

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.

If I’m the king of all I survey, then I am the king of cardboard and spoils.

My kingdom is a noisy, windowless room in the back of a Trader Joe’s grocery store. Here are the haphazard stacks of empty cardboard boxes. Here is the giant box baler. Here are the shopping carts marked “Spoils,” their wire frames brimming with still-good fruit, meat and flowers.

In Dallas Willard’s book, The Divine Conspiracy, he defines kingdom as “a realm that is uniquely our own, where our choice determines what happens.”

My kingdom used to be a stage. A microphone. A piano, and an audience of thousands. My kingdom was a performance. A show. A sham.

Then came the stroke.

Now, five days a week, I arrive at Trader Joe’s in the early dark, hours before the sun cracks the horizon.

I push my mop up and down aisles, sweep my broom into corners to collect the debris from the day before. The store is quiet, empty. There is one audience in this kingdom.

But that’s ok, because I’m not performing. There is no Stage Dieter here. No superman seeking to wow the masses with feats of spiritual strength.

I’m just me. Just Dieter. The guy who mops the floor, who bales the empty cardboard boxes for recycling, who delivers the spoils to the Salvation Army.

There’s something beautiful about this simple, menial work, though.

Take the food marked as “spoils,” for example. It’s all still good. The fruit is good, the meat is good, the flowers are good. But they’re not perfect. Anything that has an expiration date of today cannot be put out in the store for sale. And if a pear so much as rolls off the smooth green pyramid of fellow pears, it gets put in the spoils pile. It’s not perfect anymore.

So the Trader Joe’s employees fill shiny carts with all the perfectly edible imperfection and wheel the load back to my kingdom. My last task of the day is to load the van with spoils and deliver it to the local Salvation Army, where it will feed the hungry, who won’t care at all that their apple is lopsided, that their hamburger is in the waning stage of freshness. They don’t care how it looks. They just want to eat.

To me, this, here in the back room, this is what is real. Not the bright aisles of suburban shoppers making their menu selections from stacks of perfection.

I understand the spoils. I can relate. Because I, too, am spoils. Over, and over, and over again.

I used to be packaged as perfect. Back in the heyday of my church career, I was a shiny, unblemished apple. At least that’s the image I polished up and displayed to the pubic.

But now, stripped of my talent, my stage and my six-figure salary, I relish the imperfection. I revel in the spoils.

As I break down these empty squares of cardboard, abandoned boxes that once held and protected good more valuable than themselves, I survey my kingdom and I am pleased.

I feed cardboard piles into the giant maw of the baler and chuckle to myself as I think, “I am recycled Dieter.”

I am emptied and crumpled and stained and ready to be used again in a new way, in a new life.

Work was hard today. I am tired. The knuckles of my twisted right hand are scraped raw—the hand is numb now, so I don’t feel it when I bash it against something harder than skin.

But you know what? It’s ok. I come home after work and I think, “It’s good today.”

It’s not a sermon. It’s not a performance. It’s not perfection.

But the cardboard is recycled. The spoils are feeding the hungry. And today I am thinking life is good. It’s very good.

(This poem about Dieter Zander’s story, A Kingdom of Cardboard and Spoils, was written by LaDonna Witmer on 3-18-2011.)

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.


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