Warmth In Winter, Friday night

Terrific first night at Warmth In Winter.
As we were gathering for evening worship, there was a theatrical percussion group (along the lines of Stomp or Blue Man Group) called RePercussion, and they were terrific. Illusionist Jared Hall really only did one trick tonight, but I think we’ll see more of him tomorrow. Bellarive, the worship band, was great, and I really enjoyed the keynote speaker, Duffy Robbins, who was funny and relatable. Of course, none of this content is aimed at washed-up 53-year-olds; it’s aimed at youth, and there were 3,000 of them in the ballroom tonight, and I think they were really connecting to all of it. Communion was led by the Rev. Skip Armistead, whom I knew briefly in the early 90s when I was serving on the Tennessee Conference singles council (he probably doesn’t remember me), and the Rev. Amanda Diamond of Morton Memorial UMC, a great friend of the Mountain T.O.P. ministry whose pulpit I’ve filled before. After the service, I saw Amanda along with Kylene McDonald at the T-shirt booth, and I’m always happy to see Kylene.
I got to see my nephew T.J., who is on the design team which is running this show, very briefly; he’d been here all day and was already tired, and that was before evening worship. T.J.’s brother James is also here; I haven’t run into him yet.
I’m happy to be here, but I guess I don’t feel that much like a chaperone yet. There’s not much for me to do other than be here, and there are a few of the teens that I’m not sure even know who exactly I am, and vice versa. I am here in this big old suite, which I have all to myself as the only adult male in our group. The boys are next door. In the old days, teens and adults would have bunked together, but that’s prohibited, and understandably so, by the new Safe Sanctuaries policies. So that’s good in terms of me getting a good night’s sleep, but I feel almost guilty for being here.

Even A Stopped Clock Is Right Twice A Day

Although I love cooking, and there are some individual things I make that I’m proud of, there are certainly plenty of gaps in my kitchen abilities.

I have never been able to master fried chicken, for one thing. Both my mother and my paternal grandmother were great at it, but mine always winds up either burnt on the outside or so undercooked inside that it has to be sent to the microwave for emergency remedial cooking, while I worry about whether I’ve contracted anything from the first bite.

Tonight, though, it came out OK:

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It was golden brown on the outside and fully cooked inside.  I started it on medium heat and cooked it a while on either side with the lid on, then took the lid off and cranked up the heat to medium-high to get the nice crisp crust. I want to say that my mother did this the other way around, which is how I’ve usually tried to do it in the past, but I could never get mine to turn out like hers. This time, I decided to cook the chicken first, then finish by crisping the crust.

I didn’t do much to prepare the chicken. Had I thought about it in advance, and if I’d had buttermilk, I’d have done a buttermilk marinade. But this was a relatively last-minute meal. I’ve already blogged about the super-cheap leg quarters I bought Thursday at UGO and vacuum-sealed yesterday; this was me using up two thighs from the freezer from last time I bought chicken. I sprinkled the chicken generously on both sides with Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning before dredging it in plain flour. Alton Brown says that you should apply the seasoning, then the flour, rather than mixing the seasoning into the flour. This is for two reasons:

  • Some seasonings are subject to burning under high heat, and so hiding them under the crust protects them from the highest temperatures.
  • Spices are more expensive than flour, and if you season a whole batch of flour it means you’re needlessly throwing out seasonings with the excess flour at the end of the process. By sprinkling the seasoning directly onto the chicken, you use only the amount you need.

So that’s what I did. Who knows if it will turn out as well next time? Maybe I was just lucky.

A Paltry Sum For A PoultryGanza

Of all the good deals I’ve gotten at United Grocery Outlet – and I’ve gotten quite a few – yesterday may have taken the cake. They had 10 pound bags – 10 pounds! – of chicken leg quarters for $2.90 per bag. Naturally, I bought one. If only I had some way of individually vacuum-sealing each leg quarter so that I could freeze them for future use.

Oh, wait; I do.

A week or so previous, I had bought a roll of Ziploc-brand bag material, hoping it would work as well with the FoodSaver as the official FoodSaver bags do. (The Ziploc product is labeled as working in major brand-name vacuum sealers.) The Ziploc bags were a little cheaper.

I did not, however, look at the Ziploc package as closely as I should; what I bought was a full-width roll, but it was seamed and perforated lengthwise so that if you cut off a foot-long portion of 11-inch-wide roll, you then tear it apart into two separate bags, each one 5 1/2 inches wide.

It wasn’t what I thought I’d purchased, and I didn’t realize that until today. But, serendipitously, it worked perfectly for what I was doing today. The narrow-width bags were perfect for housing one leg quarter each. I had planned to package two quarters per full-width bag, but instead I just packaged one quarter per half-width bag.

They looked like this:

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I have 10 of those little pouches in the freezer now. That still left three leg quarters; I deboned those and am going to use the meat tonight for a box of Chicken Helper Ultimate Southwest Chipotle Chicken, which I also bought yesterday at UGO.

For 79 cents.

The bones from those last three leg quarters are in the pressure cooker right now being boiled down for broth. I was out of onions, so I just added some onion powder, poultry seasoning and red pepper flake.

All of this for $2.90, plus 79 cents. This is why I love going to UGO.

a blessing in song

I am one of three people with administrative access to our church’s Facebook page. A few weeks ago, while my pastor, the Rev. Lanita Monroe, was on a mission trip to Louisiana, I was checking that page and there was a message from a man named John Lemonis.

Crosby LaneJohn is a member of a vocal trio called Crosby Lane, named for famed hymn writer Fanny Crosby. Their specialty is new, Americana-style or country-style arrangements of classic hymns, and they also tell the stories behind those hymns as they perform them in concert. They also have some original songs, one of which – “Crucified” – is right at this moment being played by not only Christian radio stations but country stations, and is about to premiere on the cable channel GAC.

Crosby Lane had a radio interview scheduled in Scottsboro, Alabama, early in the day on January  20, and then after that they would be driving back to their home base in the Nashville area. They had decided to message some churches along their route home to see if any of them might be interested in a Wednesday night performance.

I messaged John back telling them that our pastor was in Louisiana. I gave him her e-mail address. I had no idea whether he’d end up e-mailing her (after all, one of the other Facebook contacts might come through first), or how often Lanita was checking her e-mail while on the mission trip.

After the return of the mission team, I was delighted to discover that John had, in fact, gotten in touch with Lanita, who had agreed to have the group perform tonight. I tried to help get the word out through social media and on the church news page of the Times-Gazette, so that we’d have a decent crowd.

Then, of course, weather happened. I worried that Lanita might have to call off the church’s normal Wednesday night activities, or that we might have a poor crowd. When I stopped by the church while on my daily walk today, it looked like our Wednesday activities were good to go, but the person I spoke to at the church wasn’t sure whether the band was still coming. If they came, they would be driving down from Nashville rather than up from Alabama, since their appearance in Scottsboro – the whole initial reason for their visit here – had been cancelled.

They came, and I’m so glad they did. It was a wonderful performance, melodic and inspiring. John and Michaela Lemonis and Tonja Rose blessed all of us with their music, with the stories behind the hymns, and with their joy in performing, even for a crowd of 35-40 people on a cold, wet Wednesday night. As it happened, I ended up sitting at the same table as the three of them during dinner, and they couldn’t have been nicer or more enthusiastic.

Everyone who was there for the performance loved it, and many of us bought CDs afterwards. “We want you to come back!” someone called out.

I hope they do too, on a night when we can give them a bigger crowd  — even though they may have bigger and better things ahead.

Let’s go to the races

I don’t know what made me think of “Let’s Go To The Races” this morning – I guess it was all this week’s Powerball talk, combined with the fact that I was headed to the grocery store at the time.

“Let’s Go To The Races” was a grocery store promotion from, if I remember correctly, the early 1970s. Our family moved to Bedford County in 1972, and I think I remember seeing LGTTR in one of our previous cities, connected to a different supermarket chain, and then seeing it again once we’d moved here. Or maybe I remembered seeing it in another city when we traveled to visit friends or family. Here in Middle Tennessee, the game was sponsored by Cooper & Martin grocery stores, which had a location in the Big Springs Shopping Center in Shelbyville.

The game worked like this: You would pick up a free card at the checkout when shopping at the sponsoring grocery store. The card would change color each week, to make it easy to identify that you had the right card for that week. Once you tore the card open, you would see five different horse races, with a different a different entry number horse listed for each race.

On Saturday afternoon or Saturday night, there was a half-hour TV show on one of the local stations. The show featured five different horse races. You would look to see if the horse listed on your card for a given race won that race; if your horse won, you were entitled to a cash prize. The prize money would increase with each race.

The horse races were real, but they were on film and were from months earlier, maybe years earlier, in any case long before the game tickets had been printed. The organizers of the game knew in advance which horse would win, and so they could announce that you had a 1 in 500 chance (or whatever) of winning, because they knew that exactly 1 in 500 game tickets had a winning horse.

The horse racing segments were the same nationwide, and the tickets looked pretty much the same except for the sponsor logo, but the host segments were locally produced so that they could be customized for each grocery store chain. The YouTube video I found and embedded below is for Hy-Vee stores, in the midwest:

If you happened to miss the TV show, you could always check the week’s winning numbers at the grocery store, where they would be on a little poster hung on the wall somewhere near the checkout.

It’s strange the things that stick in your mind after so many years.

a balm in gilead

Back in the 1980s, while my father was pastor of Bell Buckle, Blankenship and Ransom United Methodist churches, he looked out into his congregation one morning and saw the Murfreesboro District superintendent, William Morris, seated in the pews.

This was an unusual thing. My father was usually assigned to small, multi-point rural charges, and he’d never had a district superintendent drop in on a worship service like that, unannounced. He immediately wondered if something was wrong.

wmorrisNothing was wrong. Bill Morris was just the type of district superintendent who felt it was important to get out into the district and see what was going on in the churches. That really impressed my father. It was around that time, or not long after, that my father decided, on a whim, to invite Rev. Morris to preach at the annual Easter sunrise service at Blankenship. Dad sort of figured that a district superintendent would already be spoken for on Easter Sunday, but he was delighted to find out that Rev. Morris was available and willing to come.

I cannot count the number of times he’s preached Easter sunrise services for my father since that time, wherever Dad happened to be serving. The service would usually be outdoors, and Rev. Morris would usually conclude his sermon by singing something, a cappella, in his deep, rich voice. The song was often “There Is A Balm In Gilead,” a wonderful old hymn. His wife Mary was usually with him.

Rev. Morris went on to be appointed as a bishop – first in Alabama, but then back here in Tennessee. Even as a bishop, he came and preached several sunrise services for Dad.

Rev. Morris, long since retired from the episcopacy, had agreed to come and preach for Dad again this Easter. But he will be singing with a heavenly choir instead. Rev. Morris passed away this morning, at age 79.

For those of you who never had the privilege of meeting Bishop Morris – and I count it a privilege — I found this interview with him on YouTube:

He was a great man, and a credit to the United Methodist Church. I ask your prayers for his family.

the spoils of babylon

I have been binge-watching “Eric Jonrosh’s ‘The Spoils of Babylon’” tonight on Netflix, for the first time since it first aired on IFC a few years ago. It’s just as funny as I remembered it being.

This is a parody of the type of potboiler miniseries that aired on network TV in the 70s and 80s – think “Rich Man, Poor Man,” “The Thorn Birds,” and “The Winds of War,” among many others. The conceit is that novelist Eric Jonrosh adapted his novel for television back in the 1970s, but it never aired, and now it’s being seen for the first time, with Jonrosh introducing each episode.

Of course, there is no such person– Will Ferrell (a partner in Funny Or Die, which produced the show) plays the part in a fat suit and huge beard, as an impression of latter-day, wine-commercial Orson Welles.

In keeping with the conceit, there are fake opening credits featuring the names of the (completely made-up) actors who starred in the production back in the 1970s, and about whom Jonrosh reminisces in his introductions.

The ensemble cast is great – Tobey Maguire, Kristin Wiig and Tim Robbins are the actual leads, but also appearing are Jessica Alba, Val Kilmer, Haley Joel Osment, David Spade, Molly Shannon and more.

The story, quite intentionally, jumps around in time and narrative styles. It begins during the depression, as struggling oil man Jonas Morehouse (Robbins) encounters and adopts a homeless boy, who fights against his forbidden attraction to his adopted sister. The story zips along, in six half hours, through the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, mocking stereotypes and cliches at every turn.

If you missed this when it first aired, it’s a great thing to add to your Netflix queue. Netflix has also just added the followup, “Eric Jonrosh’s ‘The Spoils Before Dying,’” which is not a sequel and has no characters in common except for Jonrosh himself. “Dying” is a parody of the film noir genre, and it’s also quite funny.

an itchy tongue

The other night, I was at Legends with Dad, Mrs. Rachel, and many of her relatives to celebrate her birthday. They had a card on the table advertising some new fish entrees, and I ended up ordering red snapper served on a salad. The restaurant was out of red snapper, so I was offered mahi mahi or cod as a substitute, and I got the mahi mahi. The fish was blackened, and I had a balsamic vinaigrette dressing on the salad.

It was delicious – but I was alarmed when I discovered that my tongue was itchy and bumpy. I didn’t say anything, not wanting to disturb the family gathering, but I had panicky visions of passing out in front of the group.

The symptoms disappeared quickly once I stopped eating the entree, and I was fine by the time we had birthday cake for dessert.

I’m assuming this was some sort of allergy. The mahi mahi seemed like the most likely culprit, but most of what I can find online about fish allergies indicates that you break out in a skin rash, not with an itchy mouth. The only thing I found that seems to describe the symptoms I felt that night was this page about oral allergy syndrome. It says that if you already have allergies – the kind of allergies that give you a stuffy nose – you can sometimes get a tie-in reaction in your mouth when eating certain types of food.

I haven’t been officially diagnosed with respiratory allergies, but in the past couple of years I have sometimes suspected that I have them.  However, the list of trigger foods in that oral allergy syndrome page doesn’t seem to correspond with anything on the salad that I don’t already eat all the time elsewhere.

Now, I’m wondering if there was something either in the vinaigrette or the blackening seasoning for the fish that might have caused the reaction.

all jerusalem was troubled

First UMC Shelbyville

January 3, 2015

Matthew 2:1-12 (CEB)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,

by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,

because from you will come one who governs,

who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.  They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

We think of this passage from Matthew as a story about three visitors from the East. The word for them in Latin was “magi,” plural of “magus.” Sometimes that’s translated as “wise men,” and sometimes – as in the Common English Bible, from which I read today – it’s not translated at all. The idea that they were kings is not mentioned in the Gospels. Matthew, in fact, is the only one of the Gospel writers who tells this story, and he uses the term “magi.” It was later Christian writers who called them kings, perhaps inspired by Old Testament prophecies of kings bowing before the Messiah. In fact, two of our other Lectionary passages today make reference to this. From Psalm 72:10-11 (CEB):

Let the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute;

let the kings of Sheba and Seba present gifts.

Let all the kings bow down before him;

let all the nations serve him.

And from Isaiah 60:2-3 (CEB):

Though darkness covers the earth

and gloom the nations,

the Lord will shine upon you;

God’s glory will appear over you.

Nations will come to your light

and kings to your dawning radiance.

There have been various theories about exactly who the magi were. The commentator William Barclay quotes the historian Herodotus; Herodotus identified the magi as Medes. The Medes were part of the Persian empire. They tried to overthrow their Persian conquerors and failed, and the leaders of the Medes lost their ambition for military victory, according to this story, and just became priests and religious leaders. They not only served their own people but they became advisors to their conquerors, the Persians.

As you’ve heard many times, we don’t actually know how many of them there were. “We Three Kings” makes a nice song, but all we know is that there were three different gifts. Those gifts could have been given by two magi or by 10. But we like the idea of three people, each one holding a different gift, and so that’s what we put on the Christmas cards.

The magi, whomever they were, saw a star which they interpreted as a sign, an indicator of the birth of a new king and they traveled to Judea to try to find out about it. Billy Hix will have more to say about that star during his program next Sunday night; it’s a great program and I strongly encourage you to attend.

The star only leads them in a general direction, towards Judea, and so when they arrive in that country they went to its capital, Jerusalem, to check in with its current king.

That king was Herod – or, more specifically, Herod the Great. There was a story just a week or two ago at the Christianity Today website, by a seminary professor named Alexander Stewart, in which he makes reference to three different books that have been published about Herod the Great in the past two or three years.

Most of us just know about Herod from this Bible story. The king about whom Matthew writes in this story is Herod the Great. There’s another king named Herod, Herod Antipas, who is referred to elsewhere in the Gospels, during the adult ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist. Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great.

Herod was not the king because he was descended from David. In fact, he wasn’t descended from the Jews at all. Herod was born about 73 B.C.E. His ancestry was Idumaean. The Idumaeans were known in the Old Testament as the Edomites. They had been conquered by the Jews in the second century B.C.E. and forced to convert to Judaism. So Herod was brought up as a Jew but was not truly of Jewish ancestry.

Herod the Great was King of the Jews because he’d been appointed to that post by the Romans. Julius Caesar had first appointed Herod’s father as procurator of Judea, and Herod was able to curry favor with a succession of Roman emperors and stay in power for 40 years.

By many earthly measures, Herod’s reign was a successful one. There’s a reason that he’s called “Herod the Great,” in comparison to his sons.

Herod expanded the temple in Jerusalem, and the Western Wall – a retaining wall which is one of the only remnants of that temple – is a must-see stop for tourists to Jerusalem. That western wall is part of what Herod built. He also built fortresses and seaports. His reign was a peaceful one. When there was famine, or hard times, he reduced taxes or even donated some of his own treasures to buy food for the people, something that few kings of that day or time would have done.

There was a famous saying about the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, that said, yes, he was a dictator, but at least he made the trains run on time. It turns out that statement is a bit of a hoax – yes, the Italian train system got a lot better during Mussolini’s lifetime, but most of that had to do with improvements made by the administration from before Mussolini came to power.

Herod was an efficient ruler; if there had been trains in Herod’s time, Herod would certainly have made them run on time. But he was also jealous, and ruthless with those whom he perceived as a threat. Herod ruled with an iron fist.

Given Herod’s paranoia, it’s not surprising that he was upset when the magi showed up with reports that a new king had been born. But what surprises me is the rest of verse 3: “When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.”

Everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him?

Why?

What reason did the people of Jerusalem have to be troubled?

Herod was not well-loved by his people, and he knew it. When Herod was near death, he gave his officials a list of prominent citizens of Jerusalem, with the order that they were to be arrested, and whenever Herod died, those citizens were to be executed as well – so the people would not be inclined to rejoice at Herod’s passing. (Fortunately for the citizens of Jerusalem, this plan does not seem to have been carried out.)

Is that the reason the people of Jerusalem are troubled – because they’re afraid of how Herod will react to this threat? Are they afraid of being caught in the crossfire? Shouldn’t the promise of a new king be a sign of hope? Shouldn’t it give them reason to hope for redemption from the cruelty of Herod – and maybe even redemption from the Roman government which was the source of Herod’s power?

If anyone in Jerusalem was hopeful as a result of the magi’s visit, Matthew doesn’t tell us about them. He just says the people of Jerusalem were troubled, just as Herod was troubled.

We are often threatened and troubled by changes, even good ones. The prospect of a new king – a new regime – a new era – is a prospect full of questions. And we don’t like questions; we like certainty. Questions make us nervous. We want to be in control of our own fates, and changes remind us that we’re not.

The arrival of a new king would be a dramatic change, a change that could have profound effects, good or bad, for everyone in Jerusalem. Would he be a wise king or a foolish one? Herod derived his power from the Roman government, but perhaps a new king might try to challenge the Romans, to lead the people in revolt. Maybe such a revolt would be successful – but it might not be. And it could be bloody either way.

Or maybe Herod would try to end this new king’s reign before it began – perhaps that’s what the people were really concerned about. And if so, they had a right to be concerned. We know about the tragic action that Herod took in Bethlehem, killing all of the young boys under the age of two – an evil response from a ruthless and frightened man. Fortunately, Joseph had been warned to take his family to safety before Herod carried out this evil plan.

No one in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth could have possibly imagined what kind of king Jesus would turn out to be. Even the people who lived through his earthly ministry had trouble understanding what was going on and recognizing it as it happened. But the people of Jerusalem, hearing reports of a new king, could imagine enough possible outcomes to make them nervous. They were too busy imagining the worst to hope for the best.

The most troubling thing about our relationship with God isn’t going to church, or trying to do good, or confessing our sins. The most troubling thing about our relationship to God is that we have to give up control. The most troubling thing about true Christian faith is that it requires us to trust God, and often it requires us to reject the things that give us security. Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything he owned. He told Peter, Andrew, James and John to drop their nets and walk away from their livelihood as fishermen. He told a Pharisee named Saul to abandon his self-righteousness and the laws of Moses which had governed his life in order that Saul could become Paul, an evangelist to the Gentiles.

The Christmas season is a time of tradition and comfort, as we celebrate the arrival of a baby in a manger, someone who – it seems – cannot threaten us at all. But we cannot forget that this this baby is a king, a king who is destined to rule over us.

It’s interesting that while the people of Jerusalem were troubled by the arrival of their new king, the magi – who, according to most interpretations, were Gentiles and from another country – were celebrating. They, somehow, had a clearer view of the truth of what was happening. It reminds me a little of the story of the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his daughter – a case where an outsider had a clearer understanding of who Jesus was, and how his kingdom worked, than Jesus’ own disciples had at the time.

The holiday which takes place on the Christian calendar this Wednesday, and which we’re celebrating a bit early this Sunday, is called “Epiphany.” That word has two common uses – one is as the name of this holiday, and the other is defined as “a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way.”

The magi, despite the fact that they were pagans, if you will, from another country, another religion, another way of life, had an epiphany. They saw a star, and they knew somehow, through some revelation of God, that the star was the indication of a new age to come. And the magi knew enough to come in reverent adoration, bearing gifts, to honor this king. Despite what we see on Christmas cards, this visit did not take place on Christmas night. It was some time later, after Joseph and Mary had moved into a house. In the 11th verse of the passage I read earlier:

“They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

Herod saw Jesus as a threat. The people of Jerusalem saw Jesus as a question mark. Both were afraid of this infant king. But the magi saw this king as a new hope, a cause for devotion and celebration.

It’s easy for us to be excited during the advent season about the celebration of the baby Jesus. But what will happen when we realize that this little baby is our king? Will we welcome him to the throne, or will we be troubled? Will we be like Herod, and refuse to yield the throne to this new ruler?

What does it mean to make Jesus the king of our life? It means giving up control. We don’t like giving up control. We want to be the king. We want security. We want to rule with an iron fist.

Or sometimes we are like the people of Jerusalem – we sit around and worry, more concerned about our own safety and convenience than we are about God’s plan.

When we reserve the throne for Jesus, when we make Jesus the king of our lives, sometimes we have to step out in faith. Sometimes we have to do things that frighten us. Sometimes we have to love people who are difficult to love. Sometimes we have to change our priorities. Following the star – following the king whom the star represents — may mean traveling far from home and comfort, and it may mean changing your travel plans if God tells you to.

But it also leads to a sense of joy and wonder that Herod and the people of Jerusalem were, it seems, incapable of experiencing.

What would happen this year if each of us decided to follow God’s epiphanies rather than our own fears?

The limits of fan fiction

Science fiction is not the only genre which attracts unauthorized fan fiction – I have a family member who once wrote a great short story using the modern-day characters of the BBC series “Sherlock” — but it certainly attracts its share.

When I was a teenager, there were science fiction fans who published “fanzines,” little mimeographed newsletters. The rise of computers, the Internet, and other technologies has completely transformed the way in which genre fans can express themselves creatively. Now, fans – with relatively small budgets, at least by Hollywood standards – can produce their own short films, complete with special effects.

There have been several fan-produced “Star Trek” series, some of which have quite nice special effects and which have even managed to secure stars from the real “Star Trek” in guest roles.

The increasing sophistication of these products leaves Hollywood studios in a tricky legal position. On the one hand, they want to encourage the enthusiasm of the fan base – those are the people, after all, who the studio will need in order to make its next big movie or TV series a success. But – and this is a gross oversimplification from someone who is Not A Lawyer — there are principles in copyright law that require you to protect your rights consistently or else you might lose the right to protect them at all. That sometimes forces you to go after a relatively-minor infraction, not because the minor infraction is any threat to you, but because you want to preserve your legal rights in case of a major infraction somewhere down the road.

The owners of the “Star Trek” franchise – formerly Paramount Studios, now CBS – have apparently had an unspoken rule of thumb that they would not go after fan films as long as they were non-commercial. I don’t think they actually approved of such productions, but they made no attempt to stop them.

But now, they’re going after something called “Axanar,” a fan production which has raised more than a million dollars on crowd-funding sites. Here’s a promotional video for the project. The promo is done as a faux documentary, although I assume the finished project would be straightforward storytelling. You can see the high level of production value:

This is light years beyond some mimeographed fan fiction story being mailed out to a few dozen friends. This is, in some ways, actual competition for the authorized “Star Trek” movies and TV shows. Sure, the writing probably won’t be as polished and the acting may not be as great. But the gaps between the fan product and the commercial product are closing.

Apparently, Lucasfilm has published and distributed specific rules and guidelines for “Star Wars” fan projects, something CBS (and Paramount before it) has never done.

It’s a tricky situation. A year from now, CBS will be trying to get “Star Trek” fans to sign up for its online streaming service so that they can watch a new Star Trek TV series.  As the owners of the Star Trek copyright, they have the legal right to stop or regulate competitors from using their content. But they will have to step carefully and find a way to preserve their rights without alienating the very fans whose money they will need a year from now.