This past Saturday night, Heather and I shared dinner with others, including a man I have known for over forty years. We first met in a church where I was doing youth ministry. I was leading about 30–40 teenagers, and he was one of them. They were energetic and teachable (for the most part), and sometimes maddening, but this young man, Dieter, was different. Gifted, handsome, charismatic, and curious–I sensed he was an up and coming bright star. We would have deep talks, wrestling with issues like if it is okay to kiss a girl on the first date. Mostly we talked about Jesus.
Our paths went separate ways, but I still followed his course. It was not difficult. Dieter’s life became more and more visible. Moving to southern California, he pioneered one of the first GenX churches. Willow Creek and Bill Hybels took notice, and he was called to lead Axis, which became a thriving ministry to twenty and thirty-somethings. Dieter’s stage presence, communication skills, and musical talents were sought after. His words were published. For aspiring and ambitious ministers, this was (and is) a symbol of making it to the top.
I would occasionally come across an article he wrote in Leadership Journal, or something he had a hand in publishing. I was happy for Dieter, grateful for any role I had in shaping him. But things began to change in the later 90’s. Dieter was particularly impacted by the thinking of Dallas Willard and his books such as Divine Conspiracy and Renovation of the Heart. All of this influenced his decision to leave a high profile ministry and move back to the West coast. Dieter settled in San Francisco and shifted his focus to creating house churches and mentoring young pastors to reach the next generation.
Our paths crossed during this time. Dieter was speaking at a pastor’s conference in San Diego, and we connected to briefly share our lives. Dieter seemed more serious, quieter and more reflective, yet still having a significant and visible ministry. More years passed, and one day the worship pastor I worked with at Village passed on a video and told me I needed to see it. It portrayed a story of a very simple man who gave his best time to stopping traffic so kids could safely cross the street. It was Dieter! How could this be? Someone who commanded the stage was now directing cars. It turns out that on February 4, 2008, Dieter had suffered a major stroke and went into a coma. Six days later he woke up a different man. As Bill Gaultiere notes in an article about his life, “Dieter’s stage was gone. The applause he thrived on was gone. The opportunity to use his talents and earn a living were gone. It seemed everything was all gone.”
I attempted to connect with Dieter, but there were no returns to my emails. Time went by, and I lost track of Dieter–until recently. About nine months ago, Dieter moved back to Portland to be near his aging parents. That German Baptist youth group I once led recently had a reunion of sorts, and Dieter showed up, all leading to this dinner.
His life is much simpler now. Dieter lives alone in an apartment, working at Trader Joes, where he mops floors and stocks shelves. Lots has changed. But some things have not. During the course of our time together Saturday night, it was evident that Dieter had the same humor, the same joy, and the same peace. Most of all–I could see that he had the same love for God. It would be easy to be bitter, but Dieter is more than settled with God’s ways and God’s will. He sees himself as more whole today. God’s grace continues to work deeply in his soul.
It leaves me astounded at the mysterious and powerful ways of God. Years ago, Dieter was given the skills to lead people to worship God and praise Him. He still has those skills–only they are much quieter and more genuine. You spend time with Dieter and want to bow down before God.