My wife and I were teaching the newlywed Sunday School class at First Baptist Kenner and Christmas was approaching. As with most pastors, I’m a sucker for a great Christmas story, but that year I had ransacked all the collections of Yuletide tales on my shelves and nothing had caught my attention. So I asked the young couples, “Do any of you have a favorite Christmas story?” Carrie and Gaylen Fuller looked at each other and smiled. Carrie said, “Our family has one we call the ‘Brown-Bag Christmas.'”
When she finished telling the story, I was hooked. That week, I called an older member of her family for more details and wrote up the account. Since then, it has appeared in several publications. That was three or four years ago. Last week, I started looking for a good story of Christmas, one that hasn’t been worked to death by overtelling or that doesn’t offend you by its schmaltziness, and remembered the “Brown-Bag Christmas.” Yesterday, as I write, I spent an hour trying to find it without success.
I came home at the end of a long day and asked my wife if she had gotten the mail. She said, “Yes, your Pulpit Helps magazine came today.” On the kitchen counter lay this monthly preacher’s journal which has been a mainstay in my ministry for over 30 years since one of their very first editors, Joe Walker, a seminary class-mate, asked me to submit cartoons. Ever since, they’ve run my cartoons–and interestingly, no one else’s–and frequently, have run my articles. Scanning the “table of contents,” I was struck by the line that read, “Page 12 — The Brown-Bag Christmas.” It was my story. Okay, Carrie Dryden Fuller’s story.
Here’s the story.
“It was the early 1930s during the Dust Bowl days of Kansas, in the heart of the Depression. The Canaday family–Mom, Dad, and seven children–were having a tough time existing, so there would be no luxuries at Christmas that year. Mom told the children to go outside and find a Christmas tree and decorate it. After a lengthy search, they returned with a dead branch, the only thing they had been able to find. They stood it up in a bucket of sand and decorated it with pieces of paper tied with string. Little Judy, almost four, did not know how a Christmas tree was supposed to look, but somehow she knew it wasn’t like that!
“As Christmas approached, the Canaday children, like children everywhere, pestered Mom and Dad about what presents they might get under their ‘tree.’ Dad pointed out that the pantry was bare, that they did not have enough to live on, and there certainly would be no money for gifts. But Mom was a woman of faith and told her children, ‘Say your prayers. Ask God to send us what He wants us to have.’ And pray they did.
“On Christmas Eve, the children watched out the window for visitors, but no one came. ‘Blow out the lamp and go to bed,’ Dad said. ‘Nobody is going to come. No one even knows we’re out here.’
“The children turned out the lamp and got in bed, but they were too excited to sleep. Was this not Christmas? Had they not asked God to send them the presents He wanted them to have? Did Mom not say God answers prayer?
“Late that night, when one of the children spotted headlights coming down the dirt road, everyone jumped out of bed and ran to the window. The commotion woke up Mom and Dad. ‘Don’t get excited, children,’ Dad said. ‘They’re probably not coming here. It’s just someone who got lost.’
“The children kept hoping and the car kept coming. Then, Dad lit a lamp. They all wanted to rush to the door at the same time, but Mr. Canaday said, ‘Stay back. I’ll go.’
“Someone got out of the car and called, ‘I was wondering if someone here can help me unload these bags.’ The children dashed out the door to lend a hand. Mom said to her youngest, ‘Stay here, Judy. Help Mom open the bags and put up the gifts.’
“A deacon from the church in town had gone to bed that Christmas Eve, and lay there tossing and turning, unable to get the Canaday family off his mind. Later, he said, ‘I didn’t know what kind of shape you folks were in, but I knew you had all those kids.’
“He had gotten up and dressed and went around town, rousing people from their sleep to ask for a contribution for the Canaday family. He filled his car with bags of groceries, canned goods, toys, and clothing.
“Little Judy got a rag doll which remained her favorite for years.
“The next Sunday, Mrs. Canaday stood in church and told what the members–and one deacon in particular–had done for her family. There was not a dry eye in the house.
“Years later, the oldest sister, Eva, wrote up this story about her family for a school project. Eva said, ‘We were so thrilled by all the wonderful things in the bags, for a while we lost sight of the most special gift. The best gift that Christmas was not in brown bags at all. It was Mom’s faith, as she taught her children to bring their needs to Jesus and trust Him to meet them. And Dad’s love that wanted only to protect his children from hurt and disappointment.
“When Carrie finished telling her story to our class, she added, ‘Little Judy is my wonderful grandmother.’
“At Christmas, we celebrate praying mothers and caring fathers and believing children. We give thanks for sensitive deacons and generous friends and sleepless nights.
“And we praise God for the hard times that teach unforgettable lessons, stories of faithfulness that get told and retold through the years, inspiring each new generation to place their faith in a loving Savior.”
See why I wanted to remember that story? What makes it most special to me is that I know Carrie’s family. This wonderful tale did not come from Guideposts or Reader’s Digest or any of the other published collections of Christmas inspiration.
But I hope you will notice something else here. I had to ask for the story. It had lain dormant in the Canaday/Dryden family for three generations, being repeated only infrequently within the homes of their kinsfolk. And yet, it’s a story that cried out to be found and told and repeated endlessly.
All of which is to encourage you to “tell your story.” And ask around in your family for theirs.
I live in a part of the world we sometimes call Katrina-land, with only a touch of humor. The August 29, 2005, hurricane left a permanent impression on this sizable portion of the Southern United States. As a result, a million people were evacuated and relocated, and hundreds of thousands lost their homes, their churches, their businesses and schools and neighborhoods. And as a result of that, everyone down here has a hurricane story.
Everyone has a story. We’ve told a few of them on the pages of this web-log, this “blog.” I’ve told you of Patricia Prechter, the Baptist nurse who is also a colonel in the Louisiana National Guard and the head of the Nursing School at Holy Cross College in New Orleans, who was in charge of the medical unit assigned to the Louisiana Superdome during the Katrina crisis. What a story she has to tell.
We’ve told you of Craig Ratliff, student minister at First Baptist-Arabi, who escaped their flooded apartment with his wife in a child’s wading pool–using it as a boat–which was nearly swamped when a frightened neighbor unexpectedly jumped in with them. They pulled themselves to higher ground, then waited hours until they were rescued and taken to the Chalmette High School, a scary place with floodwaters rising, a hundred dogs sharing space with several hundred stunned neighbors. They were finally bused to other cities and he was able to call a family member to come get them. Craig’s church was completely destroyed but he has returned to the city to become pastor of a new church to be constructed on that site.
We’ve shared the accounts of Pastor Jim Caldwell of Riverside Church, of Pastor Boogie Melerine of Delacroix Hope, and of Jay Adkins the pastor of FBC Westwego and drummer for the seminary jazz ensemble who witnessed to Harry Connick, Jr., during all the turmoil. I told you of the member of Suburban Church who was flown to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he promptly broke his foot and spent weeks in a nursing home because the hospitals were all filled. He sent Pastor Jeff Box a t-shirt that said, “Eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow you may be in Utah.”
I have to remind our people to keep telling their story, even though they tire of repeating the endless details. “Write it down,” I urge them. “The day will come when you will not be around to tell what happened and what the Lord did for you.”
Of course, one aspect of this part of the world is that our stories are not finished yet. Most of us are still smack-dab in the middle of our story’s plot with the outcome yet to be determined. There are churches that have not yet been rebuilt, families that are still scattered to the four winds, and multiplied thousands upon thousands of families still cramped inside their tiny FEMA trailers while their gutted house sits unrepaired behind them.
Eventually, their story will have an ending, too. All stories do. And each one will be unique, a story worth writing down and remembering and retelling.
There was a time when every man you met on the streets was a veteran of World War II. But these days, the men and women who fought that war are dying at the rate of over a thousand a day, we’re told. That’s why every World War II veteran we meet is treated like a hero. They are the last ones standing, our final contact with that bygone era when this country learned so much about itself. They are properly treated as a special breed.
Right now, everyone down here has a Katrina story. But that will not always be the case. That’s why our people need to write their stories and to tell them to their children and their children’s children.
It’s a wonderful biblical tradition, you know.
“When your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What do the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments mean which the Lord our God commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us from Egypt with a mighty hand.'” (Deuteronomy 6:20)
“When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’ then you shall inform your children, saying, ‘Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground. For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you….'” (Joshua 4:21-23)
Last night as I write this, my wife and I were at my son Neil’s home for the birthday of his twin daughters. Abby and Erin turned 10 on November 27, and they were opening presents while we all enjoyed ice cream and cake. After all the excitement had died down, and while the adults were in the living room chatting, I said to our grandchildren sitting at the dining room table, “I have a story to tell you. Do you know the Dryden family at church? Well, this happened to their family a long time ago.”
Last night, for the first time these children heard the wonderful tale of the Brown-Bag Christmas.
It’s a story well worth telling and re-telling, like a lot of other accounts of God’s blessings in previous generations, stories which are just waiting to be brought out of the family attic and dusted off and re-introduced to today’s children of all ages.