By Jeff Mallinson –
Christ died for you. He died for your pastor too. He died for former pastors who’ve resigned in embarrassing circumstances. He died for folks trying to muddle through this life as frail, fallen disciples, who attempt to take seriously the call of Christ. He died for Jay Reinke.
On this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland Podcast, we had the chance to chat with the always candid, astoundingly gracious subject of one of the most acclaimed documentaries of the year. “The Overnighters” is a gut punch of a doc with moments of astounding love. It won several awards, including “Best Documentary” at the Sundance Film Festival. You’ll have to watch it on your own to get the whole story, which has an unexpected conclusion. If you listen to the podcast, the big spoilers come after the midway break. As the trailer indicates, the film documents Reinke’s struggles to serve new neighbors, folks in a tough economy seeking work in the fracking boom of North Dakota. He works to convince his town and some members of his Lutheran congregation something he at first found hard to admit: that the outsiders who had nowhere to live and often checkered pasts were not a curse, but a blessing. As noble as such love is, it can also result in collateral damage.
I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to make up your own mind about Reinke after listening to his explanation of things on our show. But one thing’s for sure: he takes the foolish idea that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself very seriously. For some, too seriously. Are some outsiders too far outside to embrace? Are some folks lost causes, not worth helping? Not according to Reinke.
When we asked him whether his motives for radical hospitality were pure, his response was compelling. “It’s so freeing in a sense,” he explained, “because I don’t have to dig around looking for a pure motive; because I don’t have a pure motive in my body. You know, if I have to wait till I have a pure motive I’m never going to love anybody. I don’t have time to wait for a pure motive: there’s the neighbor, it’s right now. What am I going to do?”
As with any classic tragedy, observers can often see that the protagonist’s most noteworthy characteristics can lead to painful conclusions. I don’t believe that Reinke’s life story is finished. But this chapter—or more precisely, this movie—ends in a pint or two of tears. I suggest the holy foolishness displayed in the film also points to hope for many involved. That, I suppose, is the way things tend go for underdog pastors, and pastors to underdogs.
Some of my friends think Reinke made downright irresponsible decisions, especially with respect to the safety of his family and congregation. And I’m incredibly sympathetic to the extent that church leaders have a moral responsibility to protect the safety of vulnerable people within a congregation. Some of the folks for whom he provided help turned out to be convicted sex offenders, and that’s an uncomfortable truth. But when we asked him whether he underestimated the nature of the Fall, or whether he was naive in thinking he could help people pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, merely by loving them, his answer redirected us to the nature of agape love itself. “So what if they don’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?” he asked rhetorically, “What does that have to do with loving them? Of course they’re going to fail. So … does that mean we don’t love them? Love is not an investment. Love is a gift.”
During the interview, Reinke reveals his sorrow about no longer being able to preach, write a monthly column for the religion section of the newspaper, or provide classes for community members. But neither that nor his own personal skeletons can scare him off the prize: the comfort of the Gospel. “I’m a Christian,” he tells us and film festival audiences. “I believe we have the only God on the planet who did his greatest work by becoming broken for us. And this is a God who takes our brokenness and unites it with his brokenness and that’s how he brings a blessing from it.”
So, dear reader, remember that even in your brokenness, God’s grace is sufficient for you. It is sufficient for your pastor. It is sufficient for former pastors. Even if you insist on hating Reinke and deny that grace is sufficient for him, I suspect he will keep pressing on and love you back. “Even the person who doesn’t love me is my neighbor,” he says. Amen to that.
If you are the sort of person who prays, keep him, his family, and all the folks struggling to earn a living in Williston, North Dakota in your prayers. And when our plan A’s get broken, let’s thank God for the opportunities to share a message of grace within our plan B’s.
The Wayfaring Stranger
Composed while detoxing from caffeine, cup dry as a bone, between chapters of Adam Carolla President Me: The America That’s In My Head.