Taking Words for Granted

He was a young Christian dynamo, a rising star for all of the best reasons.

I first was introduced to him at a conference in Chicago many years ago. He had led worship that morning with great passion. Actually, he hadn’t led worship, but had worshipped. If you happened to follow along, good call.

But he wasn’t just a talented musician and singer, he was a young leader, having planted two successful Generation X churches. He cared that young people would come to know the real Christ and he did all that he could to lead them to Him. At that conference, I thought he gave one of the most effective messages because it was truly full of grace and truth.

In the 20 years or so since meeting him, I have thought about him and wondered what had happened to him?

Then, a few years ago I learned whatever became of Dieter Zander.


At the age of 47 at the peak of his ministry, Dieter suffered a massive stroke. He awoke from a six-day coma unable to speak or use his right hand. And although he has improved some in the 7 years since, he has never and likely will never again sing, play the piano or lead worship. He’s no longer a pastor and perhaps never again will be.

He works in the back room of a Trader Joe’s near his home in San Francisco.

But he’s still a Christian superstar.

In his book, Soul Keeping (which I heartily recommend), John Ortberg shares some of Dieter’s story:

(Dieter) led worship with so much vigor that at times he (literally) left blood on the keyboard from cracked fingernails. He led with such energy that we actually had to stop doing certain songs because people in the balconies jumped around too much and the facilities engineers were afraid the whole thing would come down — a kind of joy-driven variation of Samson and the Philistines. Dieter loved the writings of Henri Nouwen, a Dutch-born Catholic priest and prolific author. I remember having a long discussion with him about Nouwen’s reflections on a verse in the gospel of John. Jesus told Peter that as a young man, Peter had gone where he wanted, but when he was old, Peter would be dressed by other hands and led to where he did not want to go. We were young men then; the vulnerability of aging was poignant to us.

One night when Dieter was in his late forties, he began to shake violently. He suffered a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of his brain. When he awoke six days later, he was no longer able to communicate as he had; he had to learn to say his wife’s name, to say his sons’ names. He could no longer use his right hand and therefore he could no longer lead worship. The music and words that flowed out of him were now mostly trapped in his brain.

He used to work on a stage, before thousands of people who applauded his every move. Now he works in a windowless room in the back of a Trader Joe’s grocery store. He breaks down boxes. When fruit is bruised, if a pear falls on the floor — when any product is no longer regarded as perfect, it is brought to Dieter. From him it will go to feed the hungry, who do not care if their apple is lopsided.

Dieter once wrote in a letter:

“It is good that I work there. I am like that fruit. I am imperfect. Inside I am the same person, the same sense of humor, the same thoughts. But my words betray me. What should take three minutes to say is an hour of frustration. People lose patience with me. Aphasia means aloneness. But God hears me. My world is small, and quiet, and slow and simple. No stage. No performance. More real. Good.

A year or so after Dieter’s stroke, he and his wife, Val, visited Nancy and me. He used a small whiteboard to help him communicate. Toward the end of our time together, he began to write a Bible verse. I knew which one it would be even before he scribbled it on the board: John 21:18: “When you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Then below that verse, Dieter wrote: “Good.”

There are multiple lessons I’ve learned from Dieter’s story, but perhaps one of the most powerful is to remember the preciousness of words, something Dieter writes about in his book, A Stroke of Grace.

While he is learning to express himself through his photography, he struggles to use words, though he wants desperately for them to come so he can escape with them. Absent that, he feels stuck, imprisoned. Because speaking is so torturous, he can’t share thoughts, feelings, love.

He can’t share himself.

We know The Word is a great privilege for a mortal man. And so are words.


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