Everyone has a Story; Tell Yours

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.

12 thoughts on “Everyone has a Story; Tell Yours

  1. Hi Joe: Friend, you really do it! Periodically I want to just say “Thank you.” Tom Murphy

  2. Joe, I wept while reading your article. What a blessing you are and yes, I will continue to write about God’s blessings in these PK (Post-Katrina) days. God Bless you!


  3. Joe, Thanks for sharing the “Brown Bag” story. It brought back many memories for me growing up on a farm.

  4. Hey Joe,

    I’ve always appreciated your insights into Scripture and life and the way you present them in such an inviting way. Keep up the good work!


  5. Joe,

    This is a most inspiring story. Thank you for searching to find it. God was faithful to send it to you just in time.

    Thanks for your continued reports of good news. I know there is much bad news to tell but we often need to hear the good.

    God bless you and yours as you continue your walk with God.


  6. Joe,

    Per your request, here’s one of my favorite Christmas memories. It doesn’t quite have the miracle factor of “The Brown Bag Christmas,” but it’s special to me.

    My mom’s mother passed away just before Christmas 2003. Pauline Howell was one of those grandmothers that people write about but don’t REALLY have. Well, I had one. Humble, meek, funny, wise, a prayer warrior — all of that and much more. And could she cook! We estimated one time that in her life, she’d made more than a million biscuits. She raised nine children (six of her own and three of her brother’s), and for years she made three dozen biscuits at least twice a day. Most days, my mom took a couple of biscuits and a piece of sausage to school for lunch. (In fact, I’ve often thought I’d like to write a book on Grandma’s amazing life, and the title would be “A Million Biscuits.”)

    She was sick for most of my life with chronic lung disease and osteoporosis. But it never really got her down until her last couple of


    She had an easy chair in the living room with a table beside it stacked with her giant print Bible and dozens of devotional books. She spent

    hours on end in that chair, especially in her last years. After her death, even a few of the caretakers whom the family hired to check with

    her each day told the family about walking in on her reading and praying all the time. There wasn’t one she hadn’t shared the gospel with. That was just who she was.

    When she died, the whole family gathered for her funeral in Blackshear, Ga. I believe it was on Dec. 22. We heard stories about her generosity

    and kindness from hundreds of people. Many things she’d done for people no one had ever known about but her and that person.

    The next day, we all were in her living room (and by all, I mean probably 50 people — 5 children, 15 grandchildren, 8 great-grandchildren, spouses, etc.), and my Aunt Janice made an announcement. The week before Grandma went into the hospital for the last time, Aunt Janice (her daughter) had taken her Christmas shopping. Grandma always bought Christmas presents for each of her descendants and their spouses. Usually it was no more than a pair of socks or a hairbrush, but something. And it was always very well-thought-out and

    practical. It was usually Grandma’s gift that you ended up using more than any of the others.

    That year, all she’d had time to do was buy gifts for all the great-grandchildren. So that day, sitting in her living room, all eight

    great-grandchildren opened gifts from a woman who’d died just days before. My father had also purchased small Bibles for each of them and written their names and her name in the front of each.

    She’d also written letters to some of my cousins — her grandchildren whom she knew were not living for the Lord.

    Since that time, there are at least two families who have turned around, and I know it can be attributed to her example and her commitment to

    “writing it down.”

    Maybe this story has a miracle factor after all.

    Thanks for all you do,


  7. Hi, Joe.

    Here’s one Christmas story that is a reminder, especially at Christmas, that we are admonished to pray about all things. I discovered in 1975 that that included Christmas shopping.

    I was having great difficulty finding an appropriate gift for my Dad. Cigars were out of the question, now that I knew that they caused cancer. I had made him a robe last year. I was fresh out of ideas when I struck out for Park Plaza Mall in Little Rock. That’s when I asked The Father for help with Dad’s gift. Yes, I was a little embarrassed about praying about something material. Would He think it trivial?

    I parked and found myself immediately wandering into a hobby shop. I didn’t understand why, I even questioned God, but started browsing. I was suddenly attracted to a display of string art and a beautiful clipper ship with sails shining against black felt. I breathed a prayer and purchased the kit.

    Christmas morning I got polite comments from my siblings and just an quiet smile from my Dad . I thought the gift was a bust. Dad thanked me and we went on with the unwrapping. I was sure that I had “misread God.” I kept our ‘conversation’ to myself. Why take His reputation down with mine.

    After breakfast, we took down the tree, as was our custom because of the small house, and started preparations for the large gathering for Christmas dinner.

    Then I heard it…the tap, tap, tap of a tack hammer as Dad immediately set up his card table in front of his Morris chair and started to work on the string art ship. (Anyone who knew him knew that not only was he a master fisherman of Sardis Lake, often making the pages of Memphis The Commercial Appeal, but he made his own fishing jigs. So, those stumpy Polish fingers were more dexterious than one would think. I got the same hands, and I teach piano!)

    Dad not only completed that ship, he began to design his own patterns.

    In February of 1976 Dad suffered his first heart attack, the first illness I ever knew him to experience and certainly his first period of convalesence. He would have driven himself and everyone ‘batty’. But, he had a new hobby!

    He made lots of string art in the 15 months of his life that followed. Not only do all of his four kids have these treasures,but so do his six grandkids,and some great-grands.

    Only God knew just how far that simple gift would reach and how generations would be gifted as an answer to a simple prayer.

    So, what will we wrap our gifts in this year? Frustration, extravagance, obligation? Why not try prayer.

    Mary Baronowski Smith

  8. So many happy Christmas stories! And mine is about an event that was not happy, but had a profound effect on my life.

    One Saturday, about a week before Christmas of 1961, I was at home in Bloomington, Indiana, where my husband was in graduat school. Somehow, as the day progressed, I felt more and more uneasy and convinced something was terribly wrong in my family. I kept telling myself not to be silly, but finally decided to call home (Hattiesburt, MS) and be reassured. My father answered the phone (an absolutely fabulous man who didn’t believe in long telephone conversations — usually would say, “how are you?” and then, “Here’s your mother.”) Daddy just kept on chatting. Finally, I said, Daddy, where is Mother?” “Well” he said, “she’s in New Orleans with your aunt Nell. Your cousin Ronnie was in a bad car accident and is in the hospital there.”

    To make a long story shorter, I learned that Ronnie was critically ill. It was very hard being so far away when someone I loved was in trouble. School finally ended for the holidays, and we went home. We spent Christmas day at the hospital with my aunt and uncle. During the day, an ambulance brought in a young man who had attempted suicide. I found myself being furious with him who would try to take his own life (and in a few hours he actually did die) when Ronnie was fighting so desperately for his.

    Time came for us to return to Bloomington when the holidays were over. I kept the telephone wires hot, but the news was never good. One morning at the school where I was teaching, I was called to the office to take a phone call. It was my mother telling me Ronnie had died. When I got off the phone, I headed across the parking lot to the cafeteria building where my friends were, because I needed them. As I walked out the door, I said to God, “How are his parents going to stand this? How are any of us going to stand this?” As I spoke, I (as I frequently did, and still do when I pray outdoors) looked into the sky. There, blazed across half of the visible sky was a huge white cross! I have never forgotten how cared for I felt at that moment.

  9. Joe, One of the best Chrismas my family and I have ever had was while seminary students in New Orleans. As Christmas neared my two children began to look forward to presents and all the wrappings of Christmas. I was a student and my wife worked part-time, so our funds were not what they had been in Christmas past, and I knew our children would be disappointed on Christmas morn. To prepare them, I sat them down and told them that they knew Daddy was a student and money was in short supply, and this year Christmas gifts would be be far fewer than in the past. My two precious children having the faith of a child and love for their father, said “that’s okay Daddy, it is Jesus’ birthday”. A few days later I received a call from a dear brother from my home church in Riverdale, GA. He said Barry a few of us Delta folks want to fly in to New Orleans and take y’all to supper on Friday , can you pick us up at the airport? We of course said yes, and did meet 6 of them at the airport in New Orleans, what a reunion we had, with hugs and laughter, it was so good to see folks from home. Later after our meal at PoFolks, one of the brothers spoke up and said Brother Barry, the church is so proud and honored to have you and your family here preparing for the Lord’s work, we took up a love offering for y”all for Christmas, and wanted to bring it to you in person.They presented to us a check for over $1000.00. They went on to tell us that the other 2 seminary student families at Southeastern were also being given a love gift, too. What an encouragement to us and a faith builder for our precious children. Not only did our children have a few gifts for Christmas, it sustained us for many days ahead. As we look back, we fondly remember this great love gift.

  10. Bro. Joe,

    You have been a great encourager in my family’s life. Thank you for sharing our family’s story of “The Brown Bag Christmas.” I hope you and Mrs. Margaret have a very Merry Christmas.

    With Appreciation,


  11. Reading over these terrific comments above, I’m struck by what an incredible bunch of friends and encouragers God has given me. Tom Murphy, the first “commenter,” is the retired long-time pastor of Lake Forest Baptist Church in New Orleans, now in Columbus, MS. James Byrd and Walter Brown are professors at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Sara (Parnell) runs the office at Oak Park Baptist Church here. Barbara Nalley of Cumming, Georgia, is married to my dear friend and veteran minister Winfield “Windy” Rich. Laura Erlanson works in the office of the Baptist Press in Nashville and is the “star” (she is laughing) of “No Other Name,” the incredible singing group which you need to hear. Ann Allen of Columbus, MS, is a friend of 32 years, wife of Professor James Allen, and mother of Elizabeth Swartz, and a professional counselor. Mary Baronowski Smith is one of four college students Margaret and I “adopted” at Mississippi College in the early 1970s; she teaches collegians at Istrouma Bap Ch in Baton Rouge, is married to Steve, and mother to Josh and Daniel. Barry Johnson, I don’t think I know, unfortunately, but sure was blessed by his contribution above. And then, Carrie Dryden Fuller who started all this “brown-bag story” in the first place. Carrie’s husband Gaylen is youth minister at FBC Norco; she has a twin–God is good!–Lauren; and her parents, John and Paula Dryden, are mainstays of FBC Kenner.

    You know how it is when you have good friends–you want them to know one another! (I actually have three or four more, but these are toward the top of the list!) I subscribe to the principle a friend in Canada told me once: “A friend is God’s apology for your relatives.”

    (Note to Mom: I do love my relatives; it’s just a figure of speech!)

  12. Hi Joe. I am a new friend from New Zealand and I suspect that you, and your site, are about to become a part of my new Christmas story. In reading through the pages here it feels like a special gift from my DAD and at my age (older than you :o) gifts of this kind are particularly precious.

    Blessings on you – and yours.