On May 1st, Joe was gone for an all-night youth group event. I never enjoy it when Joe is away overnight, but that night I was extra uneasy. I laid awake for hours; unable to go to sleep with a heightened sense of fear. So to calm myself down, I started quoting scripture. The very last passage that I remember quoting was Psalm 23. “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me…surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” I didn’t know it then, but God was preparing my heart for the trial that lay ahead. I was about walk through the valley, but he gave me the promise that He would walk through it with me. It was with a peace-filled heart that I fell asleep.
Not even 2 hours later, I woke up to a very faint beeping sound and Evelyn’s cries coming from the baby monitor. “Why is she crying now? What is that beeping?” Confused and disoriented, I made my way downstairs. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I knew that something was wrong. I had figured out that it was the fire alarm that was going off, and I could see a bright light shining through the opening of the bedroom door. I ran into the room and took in a scene that will stick with me for the rest of my life. There was a fire burning in the middle of a box fan and smoke was filling the room. And in the middle of it all, not even a foot away from the flame, lay our precious baby girl, screaming in fear. I snatched her up and ran back to our room as quickly as I could.
After calling Joe and making sure Evelyn was ok, I ran back down to the bedroom with a fire extinguisher. I tried to pull the pin so that I could put out the fire, but the pin would not budge. By that point, the smoke was getting so thick that I could hardly see or breathe. It was in that moment that I knew our lives would never be the same.
Before you have a fire, you think about what you would try to save before you would leave the house. I had always planned on taking the home videos, pictures, a few special family items, and my wedding dress. But when the moment actually happened, all I cared about saving was our children. I know the Lord was with me that night as I calmly picked up Evelyn, woke up a very sleepy Fletcher and Sophie, and got as far away from the house as possible. I never had a thought of grabbing keys, coats, or even shoes. All I wanted was to get our babies out safely.
As we waited for Joe and the firemen to come, I desperately wanted to quote scripture to the kids as they sat next to me, cold and scared. I have memorized hundreds of verses in my life, but in that moment, I couldn’t think of a single one. I tried racking my brain for a comforting verse, but in my traumatized state, nothing came. Finally, a verse that had been reiterated in my head for so long that it had nearly lost its meaning overflowed out of my heart with a beautiful freshness. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me…surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Christ, my Good Shepherd, had been with me every step I took that night, and he was not going to leave us in the days ahead. And just like a police officer hunts down a criminal, God’s never stopping, never giving up, always and forever love was chasing us down, lavishing undeserved grace on his children.
The following day, my body went into a post-traumatic state. I felt as stiff as a board, unable to relax. Any time I thought about the fire, I had to tell myself to breathe. I would try to rest, but all I could hear were alarms going off and Evelyn’s cries coming from the monitor, even though she was fast asleep next to me. I was terrified of going to sleep for fear of waking up to flames. My thoughts were in a constant state of the possibilities of what could have happened instead of what did. My mind was so much in that state, that my reality had become losing Evelyn to the fire, even though God had miraculously spared her. So while I was holding her in my arms, I was mourning her death at the same time.
When I realized where my mind was living, I had to force myself to think on what was true. Truth was that God had woken me to a quiet alarm sound, a woman who normally sleeps through thunderstorms and ringing phones. Truth was that even though Fletcher and Sophie, who had never been close to the flames, reeked of smoke, while Evelyn, who had been surrounded by the smoke, smelled as if she had just gotten out of the bath tub. Truth was that God had given me peace and a sound mind so that I could make wise decisions to get our little family to safety. Truth was that God had shown Himself to be a mighty rescuer. When I chose to meditate on what was true rather than making the what-ifs my alternate reality, fear and anxiety were replaced by joy and peace. God deserved all of the glory for what had happened. He was the one who had said “yes!” to life, and my fear was robbing Him of the glory that He deserved.
And then, God continued to lavish us with grace through the love of His saints. You, God's people, wonderfully overwhelmed us with clothes, groceries, meals, clothes, phone calls, visits, clothes, money, gift cards, and did I mention clothes?! You wept with us and got down on your knees for us. I would later find out that the first night after the fire, God had woken up women in the church in the middle of the night, burdening them to pray for us. As I heard the different accounts, I realized that at least one woman was praying for us every hour all throughout the night. God had set up a prayer warrior night watch on our behalf!
I will never be able to adequately thank everyone for all that you have done for us. You have rejoiced with us in our greatest blessings, and now you have come alongside us to weep with us. It has meant more to us than we could ever express. I am confident that someday when you throw your crowns at Christ’s feet, you will ask, “Lord, when did we give you toys, or wash your garbage bags of filthy laundry, or make you meals?” He will answer, “When you did it for the Groppels, the least of my children, you did it for me.”
For the past few years, I have made it my goal to read through the bible in a year. In the chronological plan that I use, the month of May (the month of the fire) is spent reading the Psalms. I see this as another gift from the Lord. The fire could have taken place during any month of the year, but God sovereignly allowed it to happen in the time that I was in a beautiful book about the power, majesty, and splendor of God. I experienced a sweet fellowship that I have never known before as I was saturated with these truths. I needed to be in God’s Word. It was my source of comfort and strength when I was at my weakest. It truly is sweet to walk with Christ in the valley.
The physical item that has been the hardest thing for me to lose is our home family videos. We had been given a fireproof box last Christmas, but I had just never taken the time to put anything in it. So instead of our memories being placed in that box, I had put them on a shelf right above the box fan where the fire had started. There have been many times when my foolishness has tempted me to nearly scream out of frustration. But each time, Joe lovingly encouraged me, “Becky, God just didn’t want us to have them.” That was exactly what my heart needed to hear. God is always sovereignly bringing about his plan, and the loss of our home videos was no different.
I had never understood the apostle Peter’s statement, “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief!” But through this trial, I learned exactly what it meant. I believed that God was good, He was always with me, and that everything He did was for my Christ-likeness. But as I waded through piles of burned clothing, I didn’t believe that God was good. When I begged Joe to look just one more time for the lost home videos, it didn’t feel like God was with me. So, I pleaded, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” And although it is still a constant struggle, he has been faithful to answer that prayer. I will never again watch videos of Joe and I bringing our precious babies home from the hospital or seeing them eat their first birthday cake. But even if I don’t ever understand it, God knows that I can be more like Christ without those videos (and everything else that we lost) than I ever could be with them safely placed in a fireproof box. It may not every make earthly sense, but He loves me too much to let that happen.
As the weeks passed, I began to feel very homesick. 3 times a week we would pass the parsonage on our way to church. As we drove by, I would look through the windows. The couches were still there, the girls’ bows were still hanging on the wall, but everything we had owned was now completely unusable. I could see my home, but I couldn’t enjoy it with my family. I longed for a place to call home, but there was no way for that to happen. It was then that I finally recalled the last part of Psalm 23. “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” I realized that the very thing that my heart was longing for was already mine. Christ had paid for my home, a perfect, un-burnable one, with his very own blood. I might not have had a home on this earth, but Christ had already purchased one for me where I could intimately know and enjoy Him forever. Christ is better than a house made of brick. A house on earth could never satisfy the deepest longing of my heart. Only my Savior could do that.
Even though I have experienced losing it all, through it I gained much. I have learned that my deceitful heart is prone to doubt God during times of trial. It is easy for me to trust God when I am living in comfort, ease, and happiness. But my trust quickly turns to anger when He brings about pain. Again, I have to pray constantly that God will help me believe what I know to be true: loss is gain, brokenness is healing, and God shines brighter in the darkness. His grace is sufficient to help me choose trust rather than doubt. Trust will always be the more joy-filled option.
I have learned to think with a more eternal, Kingdom mindset. Physical things can be taken away in an instant, but souls will last forever. I can either spend my life gathering and loving stuff, or I can invest in the lives of others. I can either worship my things, or I can worship the God who gave me those things to enjoy and point back to Himself. I have learned that no one is promised tomorrow. We never know how long we will have here on earth or how long we will have with our children.
I have learned the importance of enjoying every day that He gives me with my family and to use it for His glory. It used to be such a bittersweet time for me as our children grew out of one adorable stage and began an equally adorable, but more grown up one. But the fire changed everything. Now, I am able to thank God for the stage we just enjoyed, and praise Him for letting us watch the next one happen. What a gift!
A few days after the fire, Fletcher said to me, “Mommy, God gave us the fire so that we would know that He is great.” What a blessing our little boy has been to his weary mommy! His child-like faith was able to look beyond the circumstances and see the God who orchestrated them all. It has been my prayer that my heart would echo both Fletcher and King David who said “Let those who love your salvation say, ‘God is great!’”
I wish I could stand before you and say that I went through this trial with a complete trust in God and with fullness of joy. But I cannot. I have struggled my way through it all, constantly fighting for joy and a peace that passes all understanding. But what I can tell you is that when I was faithless, my God remained faithful. And before He ever formed time and space, he looked beyond my shaking fist aimed right at him. Instead of punishing me like I deserved, he chose to love me anyway because of the beautiful sacrifice His Son made on the cross, paying for my rebellion in my place. And for that I am thankful.