Two days ago, we were chilled to the bone at the news of the sudden passing of Adam Reinke, aged thirty years and ten months, who hailed from Port Hope. When I was Adam’s pastor, things were always familiar and friendly with us. I liked him.
I recall first talking with Adam at Ramsey Funeral Home. Three months after I arrived in Port Hope. For the wake of his six-year-old niece, Carly.
Carly had been hit by a car and died almost immediately. Uncle Adam was riding bikes with her into town from his family’s house a couple of miles outside of town. Despite the quick-thinking action he took, it could not be enough.
They were only a block from the village’s edge. A block from our church school’s playground. Measly yards from where the speed limit drops to twenty-five. The lethal combination would be an elderly woman who perhaps did not have the vision or reflexes she once had, a young girl who would not benefit from the experience of an older biker, and a section of road where the shoulder immediately falls off and into the ditch.
Adam’s sister, Melody, would plant a white cross to commemorate the event next to the road at the site of the tragedy, complete with a stuffed dog to stand guard. This was the road on which I jogged the most. Over the next thirteen years, I must have run by that cross a thousand times. It always took me back to those sad days.
Adam was fifteen that year. So was my son, Addison. They were classmates in one of Port Hope’s smallest-ever classes. Their class began high school numbering seven. Only five would graduate. And now the Port Hope Class of ’04 numbers 04.
One did not remain in school to graduate. Then, Chelsea, only two years after Carly, became the second tragic death in my Port Hope pastorate. Three weeks shy of starting her senior year, Chelsea was driving home from a friend’s when—we could never figure out why; did she swerve to miss a deer?—she went off the road and so violently entered the ditch that her injuries resulted in her death hours later.
On the shore of Lake Huron, at the hangnail of Michigan’s Thumb, Port Hope is a village of 265. The countryside is very rural. There simply are few people for miles. Statistically, there should have been no more tragedies over my final eleven years as pastor of St. John.
Statistics, however, don’t live in the real world. Only two years later, on Halloween night, yet another single-car crash would take the life of one of our church’s high school seniors, and this one was surrounded by controversy: Did swirling animosity prompt someone to tinker with Derek’s truck and to bring on his losing control and flying off the road to his death? The police said ‘no,’ but so many questions remained.
As if we, this tiny community, were not hurting enough, the very next summer a young wife and mother of three, whose youngest I had just baptized, was killed only 500 feet from her destination when an elderly woman blew through a stop sign and slammed into the driver’s side, killing Amy immediately—but thankfully causing only a couple a scratches to her infant, who enjoyed near-miraculous protection from her car seat.
That was the end of the car accident deaths, but the tragedies refused to cease. They came with such regularity that I would lament to my brother pastors, “Have you had even one tragedy? Or more than one? We can’t go two years without having one.” Indeed, we never got to breathe easily for more than two years as we would finally number seven tragedies in ten years.
I came to call myself the Disaster Pastor.
The next was a terrible situation that affected an entire family. It began with the secret, self-birth of a child who was stillborn—or was he?—by the fourteen-year-old mother who had not told anyone she was pregnant and had a build that could hide the fact, to learning who the father was, to the mother losing legal rights to her four minor children, to their losing their home and our inviting them to take refuge in the parsonage as they searched for a place to live.
On the heels of that, one of our Marines lost his legs to a landmine in Afghanistan. Joey was a classmate of my youngest, Alex. Joey’s and Alex’s co-best friend, Shawn, made the trip with Julie and me to see Joey in Washington D. C., at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There, we were humbled at the sight of many men in various states of limb loss and stages of recovery, and invigorated by their determination to overcome their hurdles. Joey, I am pleased to report, has done good things despite his bad break.
The final tragedy was one that was not imaginable. Indeed, it was so inconceivable that for months afterward I would mutter, “I can’t believe I am the pastor of a person who was murdered.”
Rhonda’s marriage now estranged, she was moving out. Her husband decided, so the thinking goes based on things he had said, that if he could not have their young daughter under his roof all the time, then neither could she. He kidnaped his wife, drove her far from home, got a hotel room, shot her to death, then did the same to himself.
That was my final tragedy, but as I learned over the years that too many had occurred before I moved to Port Hope, they have continued since I left in 2014. Andy, a husband and father of four, died in a one car accident, and now Adam. And all of the folks I’ve mentioned in this piece were members of St. John.
Adam will be sorely missed. A hole has been excavated in the heart of his fiancé and their young daughter, and the large, tight-knit Reinke clan. His friends lost a friendly guy with a kind manner and a ready smile. No more will they find him in his usual haunt, the bowling alley, where he honed his talent for nailing the pins.
When my son, Addison, and I talked Sunday evening, in his distraught state Add got stuck on, “He was only thirty, Dad! Why??? I’m thirty!” My reaction was simply to cry with my son. Add already has learned how precarious life can be. It was two years ago that we nearly lost him, and he is married with two young children who would have been devastated.
I buried so many people in Port Hope—150—that I came to say two things: “Death totally screws up a party,” and, “Death stinks.”
Since we all hate death, and we all have death as our common enemy, to have the cure is the greatest human desire.
Jesus Christ is The Cure, He who went to His death in order to take on the cause of our mortality and is the only person ever to be raised from the dead never to die again.
When Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies (John 11:25),” and when He declares, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand (John 10:28),” and when He vows, “Everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day (John 6:40),” Christ speaks as One who has authority. Who is to be trusted. In whom to place your faith.
I hate death. I hate being punched in the gut. I hate these sorrow-filled goodbyes. You do, too. Everyone does.
I long for the day of the great reunion, when my Jesus will make everything right. When we will be resurrected from the dead into immortal, glorious bodies, to live on the new earth forever. When there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4).
Until then, we persevere in faith toward Christ. We take every death as a punch to the gut, but we catch our breath and get back into the fight of faith. We fight the good fight because it is a fight worth battling, because no one but Jesus Christ has won the ultimate battle of life and death.
This Christmas, I hope you stop and think, “THIS is the true meaning of Christmas: Jesus came to live in order to give me the cure for death.”