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 use 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.

Dieter Zander:
  In the 1980s, Dieter Zander pioneered one of the first GenX churches in United. In the '90s was a well-known pastor and worship leader at Willow Creek. After moving to California to pursue further ministry, he suffered a major stroke on February 4, 2008. He lost most of his speech and the use of his right hand. He is creative and an artist. He's been a musician, pianist, singer, bandteacher, composer, teacher, pastor, writer, counselor, speaker, but that's gone now. He's alive! He's married, a parent, friend, son, brother and God's child. Now, he's creative and an artist, again. He is a photographer. And he loves it. You can visit his photoblog here, and learn a little more about the journey of living with the effects of a stroke in this autobiographical video here.

    • Judy Wilson

      Thank you for reminding me that performance is not what pleases God but simplicity and a heart to serve are valuable in His kingdom. Your story is a powerful testimony to His goodness and grace.

    • Jessica Ptaszek

      Dieter, I know that you view your time (or some of it) at Willow as a sham or just a performance. But I need to tell you how you’re worship changed me. I had just become a believer in 1994 and I walked into Willow knowing no one. I sat down for New Community and listened to you start to worship. Coming from the Catholic church I had never experienced anything like that before. I felt a love for God coming through your music. Nothing about what you were doing was a sham to me. God used you to bless me in ways you will never know. I still attend Willow. Worship has never been the same to me since you have left. I just want you to know that you made a huge difference in people’s lives. I was one of those thousands. I heard you. I worshiped the most Holy God with you. Thank you!
      I’ll be forever blessed.

    • Wow, my friend. Who am I to judge… but God is using you more powerfully than God ever has. Thanks for not neglecting the fact that you are still a powerful revealer of what is truly going on and what really matters. And thanks for sharing it here.

    • patti kulpinski

      Dieter – we got to know you on many levels as you served in Willows many ministries
      and worked with both Jodi and Lisa – what is so wonderful to hear is the faithfulness of God in and through you – it may not have come in ways you would have chosen but it is truly evident and we celebrate who you are IN Christ! Love – Patti

    • Thanks Dieter. I was wondering how you are doing. Sounds like spiritually you are just fine, learning valuable lessons. I respect that you have a job that fits your current abilities and allows you to worship God in those limitations. I pray my brother would accept the same.
      “Whatever you do, do your work heartily as unto the Lord rather than men, for it is from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.”

    • Gloria Chan

      Read about you in Conversation. You no longer serve with your voice but you are touching others with your life. Your story is so compelling. We live in Sebastopol, one day we will look for you in Trader Joe, your kingdom. Blessings to you and your family, Gloria