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Friday, November 14, 2008

What's in Your Thankful Jar?

Jim reading to the boys

I took this picture because I wanted to keep this memory fresh in my mind. Jim reads to the boys most every night before bed. It is the same series of books that he read to Nic and Anthony. He saved them never knowing he would have two more sons someday to read them to.

It has been strange starting over here in San Antonio with not many folks knowing my story. I find myself almost not knowing where to start when I meet someone new. I saw a CD entitled "Trying to Fit the Ocean in a Teacup"; that about sums it up perfectly! Though it is extremely important to me, I haven't had much time to give to developing new friendships. However, last week, I was spending a little time with a new friend from church. I had previously told her a brief version of my life with Troy, losing him and my new life with Jim, as well as his life with Andrea. She began reading our blog, which does help cover alot of our history but still is only a window into who we are. She said someone had told her about my interview with Bill O'Reilly on The O'Reilly Factor and she wanted to know more about it. I still feel so honored that he gave me an opportunity to speak out about the American media's neglectful and negative reports on the war and warriors in Iraq. I smiled inside, today, as I drank coffee from my "No Spin Zone" mug. (More about that mug later).

Telling a new person about God's faithfulness jump started this holiday season for me. I realized not too long ago that the 2 year anniversary of Troy's death would fall exactly on Thanksgiving Day, November 27th, this year. We will share the day with Troy's family, which I thought was so appropriate for the very inappropriate coincidence of sadness and celebration that day. Yet when I look deeper, past the obvious pain, I see the Lord revealing His will for me, actually for all of us; to always give thanks, no matter what.

Jim had a nice idea, which was echoed by my MOPS group last week, to keep a thankful jar in your house. It contains slips of blank paper and pens for each family member to jot down something God did for them that day or week. And in reading them at a later date or when facing difficulties, one can remember God's faithfulness, answered prayers and blessings. How quickly we all forget! I also heard a neat idea to take a Sharpie pen and write on artificial fall leaves all the things you have to be thankful for and spread them out on the table before serving Thanksgiving dinner. Decorative AND Praiseworthy! I liked that idea. As we explained what our thankful jar's purpose was to the kids last week, we discussed the importance of being thankful to the Lord. We OWE it to a loving God, even when He doesn't appear to be loving. He has given us eternal life and this is the least we can do.

Hebrews 12:28

"Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful and so worship God acceptably, with reverance and awe."

We know too well that this world can be shaken. Our lives can be turned upside down in the blink of an eye. One knock on the door, one doctor's report, one phone call, one wrong move on the freeway... can change the entire course of the rest of your life.

The last time I rode a rollercoaster, I thought my teeth were going to be rattled out of my head. Every muscle in my body was tense as I gripped the handle rail through the rough twists, turns and flips. I got off the ride and wondered at what point I had gotten too old to ride rollercoasters. I didn't remember them knocking me around or shaking me up so badly when I was young. Maybe I was just too naive to know what could have gone wrong.

Once tragedy strikes your home or your heart, all naivetity is gone. You know you can be shaken so you had better hang on tight. Thankfully the Lord hangs onto us so even when our grip weakens we don't fall out of our seats.

Each day after Troy died, no matter how mad at God I was, I tried to always tell him something I was thankful for. I won't reiterate here what I wrote in my last blog, "Cocoons", but suffice to say I was always thankful for the people God put in my life throught it all. I remember on Day 5 when it was confirmed that it was Troy's DNA at the crash site and his status went from "Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown" (MIA) to "Killed in Action" I thanked the Lord. I did not thank him that Troy had died. I did not thank Him that evil and twisted terrorists had stolen his earthly body from the crash site. But I thanked Him, profusely, that I did not have wonder if he had been taken alive or was being held prisoner somewhere in that forsaken country. Insurance was able to release the money to us. We had closure. We had devastating closure but we had closure that some never get.

I dissected this below scripture in Thessalonians about thankfulness because I needed to understand what God was asking me to do, in my nightmare, with regards to thankfulness. Was He asking me to be thankful that He had taken Troy? Well, I simply couldn't do that. But was I disobeying God by not thanking Him?

I Thessalonians 5:16-18

"Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."

I looked this verse up in many different translations and not one of them said I had to be thankful FOR all circumstances, just to be thankful IN all circumstances. As Jim and I were talking to the kids about our thankful jar, we talked about this scripture and encouraged them to do this so they would not grow bitter but better by life's disappointments. And so they would always attribute God as the One giving them goodness and not attribute it to themselves.

Hebrews 1:16-17
"Do not be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and poerfect gift is from above, coming down fromt he Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows."

Philippians 1:6

"...being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus."

These scriptures tell us that every good thing comes from our Father AND that He is doing good in us and for us from our birth to our death. Circumstances are misleading. Good to God is not necessarily good to us and vice versa. But if we hold onto, even when we are shaken, His truth that He is working out the good, even in the bad, then we can work through the pain and have hope. Did I do this every second of the day? No. One night when I was really questioning God's goodness to me, plans for me and was struggling to find anything to be thankful for, I received this forward of a forward email. (Thank you Terri and Jennifer!) It spoke loudly yet gently to me in my distress. It was written by a total stranger struggling in his own trials:

"I won't, by the strength of God, give up on all I believe, nor get mad because I don't understand why. God is still God no matter how these events transpire. Circumstances do not define my faith or my God. God is unchanging. His is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Being a Christian does not mean we are given a guarantee of a trial free life or pain free life. In contrast it means we will face trials and pain. Our guarantee is He will never leave us nor forsake us. We do not face trials alone. And through our faith we glorify our Creator and our Savior who gave us another guarantee; that we will live for eternity with Him. So as we get ever closer to the edge of this furnace and as we begin to feel the heat from the fire, we know the flames do not control our destiny. And we rest under the shadow of the Almighty."

That stranger was Jim. That email was written in January 2007, when Andrea was barely hanging onto life in the ICU the first time she went in. Though their trial was entirely different than mine, I knew this couple were still being thankful and faithful to the God we all served.

Jim and I told our children that thankfulness to God will be the biggest testimony we have as a family. I hope it has already begun.

Back to the beginning of this blog when I was telling my new friend about my time on the O'Reilly Factor, I loved telling her the rest of the story. About how, when they asked me to be on the show, I had boldly asked the producer if there was anyway I could get a book or coffee mug from the show. He said yes and I was so touched when not very many weeks after I received not only a mug and an autographed book but an entire boxful of O'Reilly paraphanalia! How great of them to remember me. My friend was touched to hear the rest of the story that she didn't watch on TV. I then told her about that the night after I was on the show, someone emailed Bill O'Reilly and told him there had been a fund established for my children. He showed the email on TV and posted the fund info on The O'Reilly Factor website. I never knew what became of it but felt awfully thankful that people watched and were touched that I spoke out against the anti-war media movement though I had lost so much in the war itself. When I was moving from Phoenix, I stopped by the bank to close out the activity and was surprised to see that the account for the kids had grown by thousands specifically from that 10 minutes I was on the show. Isn't that what God does? We ask for a coffee mug and He gives us a bank account.

I cleaned out yet another straggling box the other day and it was full of cards from strangers, sticky notes and scraps of paper with phone numbers of people helping or praying and pages of scriptures that folks jotted down for encouragement. All of this and so much more gave me reasons to be thankful each and every single day when I couldn't see the sun shining.

Which brings me back to the photo of Jim and the boys reading. Troy loved his kids. He was a great father. He patiently instucted loving wisdom to our children. He loved spending time with them over anything else. And I often said I never would have considered having so many children if it hadn't been that I knew I had the guarantee of him being such a super dad. Turned out that guarantee I had just didn't last a lifetime. Losing not just a father, but the kind of father he was, made his loss that much more crushing for all of us. I knew God could return this blessing again but to be honest, I doubted I would get that twice in a lifetime. I prayed for it and I found God gave it back to me in Jim. I learned I can entrust not only myself, but my children to God's hands and God's plans. He does it all so much better than I could have. He made Jim the kind of father that the children need. He views his second chance at fatherhood, not as duty but as blessing. He loves reading to the boys as much as they love listening to him. Could I look at them and see them as boys who lost everything- their father, their best friend, their mentor, their role model? Sure. Should I instead rejoice with thankfulness and a bit of awe that the Lord gave my sons many incredible male role models through family and friends over the last two years? And that though they have been through unimaginable trauma at early ages, they are whole, healthy, loving and kind young men? Yes. Do I see the miracle that Jim CHOSE to be their father when he had no genetic obligation? Most assuredly yes. For all those things and more I choose thankfulness.

As I mentioned above that I was forwarded Jim's helpful email that night by Jim's friend, Terri, to my friend, Jennifer, and then on to me, I didn't mention that I got to finally meet Terri today! She was an instrument God used not just in my meeting Jim, but in teaching a grieving widow that her God is universally still holding us in the palm of His hand from other runners in an unexpectedly painful race, Jim and Andrea. Terri and her husband are in town from Wichita Falls for the weekend and stopped by so we could meet. Out of the blue, she mentioned the subject of thankfulness. Jim and I had heard about a military family in Wichita Falls losing their one-year old little girl when she crawled through the doggie door and drowned in their own swimming pool. Terri spoke to the little girl's 10 year old big sister at church only the day after the funeral. Terri reads the Bible stories to the elementary kids and helps them with the application. That Sunday's lesson was on the ten lepers being healed yet only one thanked God. The little girl told her that she had something to be thankful for. Terri, like all of us, could not imagine what it could be after such an awful event. The girl said her little sister loved being held and now she was being held all the time by Jesus. And for that she was thankful. I couldn't help but think that she must have heard that from her parents. They are teaching her the very important lesson of gratefulness even when we hurt. That is the best story I have heard of being thankful IN all things.

Thirty people accepted Christ as their personal Savior during Troy's memorial service. I wanted to be sitting in anyone else's seat, other than my own, that sunny morning in early December during his service. Yet, I was thankful that so many would now spend eternity with the Lord. Indeed, it is a new way of looking at life. It's easy to be thankful when all is well in our world. Much more of a challenge when the bottom falls out.

I refer to David, who was called a man after God's own heart, often because he was always seeking relationship with the Lord even when He didn't understand Him. David was just a gut-level-honest-with-God kinda guy. David had many victories and many defeats. He was the king yet, at times, he was as low as a man could be. David was often pursued by his enemies. He didn't always feel God's favor or presence. I really like what he wrote in Psalm 71. Here are some excerpts:

Psalm 71:5
"For you have been my hope, O Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth. From birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother's womb. I will ever praise you."
verse 10-11
"For my enemies speak against me; those who wait to kill me conspire together. They say, 'God has forsaken him; pursue him and seize him, for no one will rescue him'. "
verse 14
"But as for me, I will always have hope; I will praise you more and more."
verse 20
"Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up."

Casting Crowns sings a beautiful song titled "Who Am I?". It speaks of our humbleness compared to God's greatness.
"I am a flower quickly fading, Here today and gone tomorrow, A wave tossed in the ocean, A vapor in the wind. Still you hear me when I'm calling, Lord, you catch me when I'm falling, And you've told me who I am. I am yours. Not because of who I am, But because of what you've done. Not because of what I've done, But because of who you are."

What an awesome song that reminds me that the Lord of the Universe knows my name and listens when I call. That is always something to be thankful for.


  1. Ginger, the Neeleys are thinking of you today and loving you and yours!


  2. Ginger,

    My name is Joni Johnson. My husband Jay and I were stationed with you & Troy for a period of time at Aviano. We had some friends in common--Kyle & Teresa Odom. We were saddened to hear about your loss of Troy. We are currently stationed here in San Antonio also at Randolph. I come across your blog after seeing your name mentioned in an article from People magazine. Your blog has been very inspiring.

    Joni Johnson (harleybabe972@yahoo.com)