When it seems like those you love the most are ripped from your hands, how do you release your grip long enough to see the face of almighty God? And if you happen to catch a glimpse of Him, do you ask, “What kind of God would permit such havoc … such pain … such loss of innocent life?”
These are a few of the questions that Gary and Rachele Lightsey asked themselves when, in one tragic night, they not only lost their two children but also Rachele’s mother and stepfather.
It happened so suddenly. There were no warnings. They never imagined the early-morning fire. They never imagined what it would do to their marriage.
“I just wanted to die”
Rachele and Gary had two children: a boy and a girl. They had two pets: a dog and a cat. And they lived in a one-story house on a corner lot in Dallas, Texas. Gary had done well as an insurance broker and at the beginning of 2001 Rachele quit her job to be home with the kids.
On August 15, 2001, Rachele’s mom asked to keep both 4-year-old Tyler and 16-month-old Kyleigh overnight. It was the first time that both children had ever spent the night at grandma’s together.
The phone rang the following morning, around 7 a.m., after Gary had left for work. It was Rachele’s grandmother. “Get to your mom’s house,” she said. “There’s been a fire.”
And two days later, the Lightseys were planning four funerals.
The fire that took the children’s lives had begun around 5 or 6 a.m. An electrical short caused a couch to smolder and then burst into flames. Rachele’s mom, step-dad, and children all died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
How could the Lightseys go on? And did they even want to? “As far as I was concerned I just wanted to die,” Rachele says.
No longer a mom, she felt no purpose in life … as though she were nothing. And no matter what Gary asked Rachele, her answer was always the same: “I don’t care.” Gary begged his wife to start caring—about him, about their marriage. He felt isolated, unappreciated, and unloved.
Gary asked God what he had done to deserve the loss of not only his children and in-laws, but also the relationship with his wife. And then he convinced himself that if God really cared about him, He would have prevented the fire from ever happening.
About six weeks after the fire, Gary returned to work, but every day was a harder struggle. So after several months, he quit his job and joined Rachele at home. Much like Job in the Bible, they were “silenced by the darkness … the thick darkness” (Job 23:17) that seemed to cover their lives.
“I tried to ease those pains I was feeling”
About a year after the children died, and several jobs later for Gary, two of Rachele’s nephews came to live with them. Their parents were going through a divorce and the boys needed a place to live. Rachele was thrilled to have her title of “mom” back, but Gary wasn’t quite ready for the laughter of children to once again fill their home.
Never good at expressing his emotions, Gary escaped through alcohol, “I tried to ease those pains I was feeling.” He began late-night escapades drinking with friends. “Who knows when he would get home,” Rachele recalls, “and what kind of state he would be in.”
Sometimes Gary would go to church on a Sunday morning after coming home drunk on Saturday night. “I was tired of … him putting on the happy face like everything was peachy keen in our marriage when it really wasn’t,” Rachele says.
When a Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway was announced in 2006 at the Lightseys’ church (Firewheel Bible Fellowship; Rowlett, Texas), Rachele asked Gary if he would go. His initial reply: “No.” He didn’t want to face his failures. He was already doing the best he could to hold his marriage together.
"It’s almost like we found the secret to a happy marriage”
“I didn't feel like we needed it then,” he says. But Rachele was convinced that the getaway would help their marriage. Reluctantly, he agreed to go.
Rachele told herself that she would not go to the getaway to see how she could change Gary. “I was really going to ask God to give me the strength that this [marriage] is what I was supposed to fight for … I didn't want to walk away.”
During the weekend Gary learned there was much more that he needed to be doing as Rachele’s husband and the spiritual leader of his family. But the most important thing they both learned was what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (John 3:16-18). “I knew how to be formal and pray and go to church,” Rachele says, “but I didn't know what it meant to have a real relationship with Him.”
Gary says that, until the Weekend to Remember, his relationship with Christ had been superficial. For most of his life he had known of Jesus Christ, but at the getaway, he asked Him to “guide my life and my marriage.” When he decided to wholeheartedly rely on God for all that had happened in his life, he no longer felt a need to use alcohol as an escape.
With Jesus now at the center of her life, Rachele understood that she should identify herself first as a woman of God instead of a mother. “It’s almost like we found the secret to a happy marriage,” she says, “and we couldn’t describe it other than by a relationship with God.”
Gary and Rachele stopped bringing up repeated failures. They put aside past anger and hurts. They began a process of placing the tragic fire into God’s hands, once and for all. By doing this, they discovered a peace that was beyond their understanding (Philippians 4:7). They knew in their hearts that God had provided a safe haven for Tyler and Kyleigh. And they completely trusted that in eternity, they would see their children once again.
“It [the fire] was out of our control,” Rachele says.
“An awesome program for marriage”
Longing for their marriage to continue to grow after the getaway, the Lightseys vowed to get more involved in their church. They bought some copies of Building Your Marriage, a small-group Bible study in the HomeBuilders Couples Series®. They were excited about what they had learned at the conference. They wanted to tell everyone about the difference it makes when God is first in a person’s life and marriage.
After the Weekend to Remember they told a leader of Firewheel Bible Fellowship that they wanted to give their Bible studies to the church. “We want you to put them to use,” Gary said. “This is an awesome program for marriage.” They were surprised by the man’s response: “Why don’t you take these books and do something with them?”
“We don’t have a ministry background,” Gary answered. “We can’t do that.”
“Sure you can,” he replied, “You are a living testimony of the power of what a Weekend to Remember can do.”
Two months later the Lightseys began leading their first small group. They not only helped others in their church as they facilitated Building Your Marriage, but also strengthened their own marriage.
Over the years Rachele and Gary have seen God transform their shattered lives and watched Him use their pain to help others. They’ve facilitated a grief recovery group at their church and begun a “grief share ministry.” Not too long ago they reached out to a woman in their community who lost her mother and two young children in a fire.
Recently the Lightseys took a couple in their small group to a Weekend to Remember. They had a “total turnaround in their marriage,” Gary says. “ … and that’s what makes it all worthwhile.” And they’ve seen how God has fulfilled Rachele’s desire to be a mom. She and Gary are continuing to raise their nephew Danny, and in 2007 they became Mom and Dad to their 3-year-old nephew, Jaxon.
"It really was about acceptance"
Today the Lightseys' marriage is strong and they are at peace. "It really was about acceptance," Rachele says. "… We just had to trust God."
Whether people ask the Lightseys how to survive a tragedy or succeed in a dying marriage, their answer is the same: "If you believe that there is a God, then you have to believe that He will get you through it."
"I didn't think I could do it," Gary says. "But I did get through it and I'm living proof."
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