People Who Inspire Me – Dieter Zander

A few weeks back, Kim and I attended a birthday party for a great friend, Freya, along with about 50 of her other friends. She is a really inspiring person who has had an impact on lots of people (as evidenced by her party attendance). She probably deserves her own post, but today I want to share about one of her friends that we met at the party.

Dieter and Freya. Photo credit: Freya K.

His name is Dieter Zander. Back in 2008 Dieter was on top of the world. He was a talented musician, a successful author, a well-known minister and a sought-after speaker. He had achieved much of what he’d hoped for in life. He lived for his work and took a lot of pride in his accomplishments. In his own words, he made his living on stage, “thriving on the applause and adoration of his audience.” Then, suddenly one night he had a massive stroke. When he woke up six days later he discovered he had lost the use of his right hand and most of his ability to speak. His brain still functioned fine but he couldn’t communicate anything that was going on inside his head. In an instant, his ability to do the things he loved was gone and his career was over.

The ensuing days, weeks, months and years have been really challenging for him. The difficulty with communicating has caused the loss of some old friendships and made new connections really difficult to make. He admits to being so lonely and frustrated at times that he has thought about committing suicide. But slowly things have improved. Through the help of a speech therapist he can now speak a little. He still can’t play music, but a friend of his, knowing that he needed a way to express himself, gave him a used camera. He has become quite an accomplished photographer, even starting a part-time photography business (you can check out his photography at For his full-time job he works as a janitor at a Trader Joe’s store.

While his physical recovery is awesome, what is most inspiring to me is how his personal identity and his image of God have changed and recovered. He calls his stroke “A Stroke of Grace” and wrote a short book by the same title that shares his story. Since he can no longer derive his identity from his work, he’s been able to listen to God and hear something new. In his book he says through his deep loneliness he discovered God. “I thought I knew him, but after the stroke, locked in the prison of my own mind, I found that I had never really known God, not like this. 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.” He also shares how God used to be his boss but is now his friend. God has told him, “Dieter, you are not going to work. Now, we play.” His world is obviously much different now. As he puts it, it has “grown much smaller and quieter and slower and simpler too.” But he’s also happier and more at peace than ever before.

Dieter’s story hit me particularly hard because he was doing some of the things I’ve aspired to do. But, he’s actually happier and more fulfilled now that all of it is gone. There have been times in my own life I’ve gotten caught up looking at myself through the “work/identity lens.” I find I’m pretty disappointed by what I see. When I was in college if you would have told me that 14 years later I would be working for my alma mater and living in my home town, it would have been incredibly depressing. But, I’m in the process of learning that, while God does care about our work, he cares much more about our character and who we are becoming. I think he wants us to do work that is fulfilling and uses the gifts he’s given us, but he doesn’t want that to be the main place we get our identity.

Dieter’s story demonstrates how fleeting all of that can be. While ambition can be good, it can also quickly go wrong. The questions I’m learning to ask are “Am I looking for the things that God wants and for his glory, or for my own? Am I taking the time to listen and to let God mold my character and my ambitions to fit his plan, or am I hanging on to them so tightly that I can’t hear him?” I definitely don’t get it right all of the time, but I think part of the reason I am still living and working in my hometown is that, by his grace, I have been able to listen at times. I believe he has said this is where he wants me right now. I’m actually pretty content and grateful for that most of the time. When I step back and get some perspective I realize how fortunate I really am. I’m also learning to lean into what he is doing and hopefully not miss the opportunities right in front of me, no matter how small they may seem.

As I look back over the last few years, it is awesome to see the amazing changes he has facilitated in my character and the opportunities I’ve had that I would have missed had I given into my restlessness and moved on to something that seemed more glamorous. I’m also surprised how often God uses what we wouldn’t expect. A lot of times we think it is the biggest and most grandiose that matters most. But, more often it is the small and simple that God chooses to use. His kingdom is often opposite of our expectations and goes against the cultural norm. I don’t want to miss what might be small to me but is really big to him. He may change my direction tomorrow, but I really want to be present for what he’s doing today.

If you’d like to learn more about Dieter’s story you can check out this video. I hope you’re as challenged and encouraged by it as I was.