I Visited A Cult

Oh, yes, I did.

I visited the international training center of a cult, and on the surface, everything looked great.

But I’m going to try to refer to it as a “community” instead of a “cult.” I won’t say which “community” it was, but my 21-year-old nephew came into town with a friend over the weekend, and on Friday night, he announced to me that they wanted to visit a cult (he used the word “cult”) on Saturday…and he wanted me to go with them. I had questions, of course. “You don’t want to join the cult, right?” “Why do you want to go?” “How far away is it?” “Is it scary?”

He showed me the group’s website. It looked pretty benign, And it said they welcome visitors, so I agreed to go, and we made plans to leave the next day. I should mention my husband thinks we are all nuts.

Early Saturday afternoon, we got into the SUV and drove over an hour to the address listed on the website. We were excited to see what we would find! Upon arrival, we drove into the parking lot at the front of the group of houses and got out. We walked around looking for people, but all we saw were sheep out front eating hay. One of the sheep had a penchant for magnolia leaves, so we watched them for a while and discussed what we should do.

Ultimately, we decided to go to another road and approach from the back. When we drove into a back parking lot, we saw a woman stick her head around a fence. I asked my nephew’s friend to put down her passenger-side window, and in my best sweet southern voice, I said, “Hey! We read on your website that y’all welcome visitors! We’re just curious and would like to find out what y’all are all about!” Once she decided we were friendly, she offered to show us around. She explained we weren’t seeing many people because Saturday is the Sabbath, and most people were resting.

We followed her into the dining hall/meeting room, which was lovely…clean and nicely decorated. We ran into a couple more friendly people inside who readily introduced themselves. From there, she showed us the barn area, where they had goats and cows. And after that, we walked over to one of the community’s houses, where members of the “community” had gathered outside for music. We were offered tea, and we all took a cup. I thought it was delicious, and my nephew did too, but I noticed his friend was holding hers…not drinking it. I knew she was thinking about Jonestown, so I took the tea off her hands and drank it myself.

We were welcomed with open arms by everyone gathered outside, and we asked any questions we could think of. Are people free to come and go as they please? Yes. If someone leaves the community, are they shunned? No. Do y’all drink alcohol? No. What are your beliefs? How do you support yourselves? I wanted my nephew to ask if they used cannabis, but none of us had the nerve to ask that. I thought I smelled it wafting out of a house at one point, but I couldn’t be sure. And this group believes everyone should work together for the greater good of the community. Every person contributes by working…like bees in a hive. Children are educated onsite. We weren’t bashful…we asked questions. We didn’t ask in a threatening way…we asked in a curious way, which is exactly what we were…curious.

We left after a couple of hours thinking, “This isn’t a cult at all! They’re just a religious commune!” Everyone was so friendly. They were very reserved, but they were friendly. We had no reason to believe they were anything but good folks.

And then, after we got home, we googled the name of their “community,” and that’s when things got weird!

Unbeknownst to us, just last week, the FBI had released from their vault information from a 2013 investigation into this particular group. At the top of the report, it says, “Open investigation based on allegations that children are being sexually exploited.” And somehow, we decided to visit right after the report was released from the vault? We had no idea! In the report, there is testimony from former members of the community with allegations of child labor, sexual abuse, sexual orgies, and drug use. That led us to look at other websites, where we found allegations of community members being held against their will…and more. And honestly, it frightened us. Is any of the “testimony” true? I don’t know, but it was enough to make my hair stand on end.

And it made me a little sad. I thought of the sweet people we had met. Most of them were friendly, but some of them were looking at us wide-eyed, and one of them appeared a little unstable, but we chalked it up to dementia. But after reading everything, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the wide-eyed ones were desperate to leave. Were they unhappy? Were they being abused? Did they want us to take them with us? Did they want to pass us notes asking us to send help? Of course, that’s all my imagination. No one, at any time, indicated they were unhappy. In fact, most of them appeared very happy.

In hindsight, I’m glad we didn’t google the community before we went, because we never would have gone. I believe there are some good people in that group. Are there bad folks? I don’t know. But I’m guessing that will be my only visit to their commune. We went unannounced, but didn’t see anything suspicious. Of course, my nephew’s friend pointed out that we were really only shown the animals and the interior of one building, which was almost unoccupied at the time, so there wasn’t much opportunity for us to see anything nefarious.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, they seemed like nice people. Of course, someone else pointed out to me that “of course they were nice! They wanted y’all to join!” Yeah…they probably didn’t want me. I’m way beyond child-bearing years, and I’m sure they could take one look at me and tell I’m way too high maintenance. My nephew, on the other hand, is low maintenance, strong, hardworking, good-looking, musically talented, and artistic. Any cult would love to have him. His friend is pretty and outgoing…they’d love to have a young lady join up, I’m sure. But I would have been a total drain on their system.

And in their defense, the FBI closed the 2013 investigation. Since I never read anything about any arrests, and they didn’t invade the place like they did with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, I’m guessing they didn’t uncover enough evidence to support the allegations.

Either way, we got out unscathed. If anyone ever tries to hold me at a commune, they will run me off as soon as they figure out I don’t even know how to mop very well!

On our way home, I thought of how happy my parents would be that my nephew was hanging out with me in North Carolina. And I wished I could call them to tell them about the experience…they would have loved hearing about it.

 

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My Favorite Easter Gifts

I went to Target last night in search of items to put in my teenage daughter’s Easter basket. For the last few years, a friend of hers…we’ll call her Lu…has slept over at our house the night before Easter. It has become a tradition, and I love it! I get to put together two Easter baskets! This year, though, I get to put together three, because her friend from Ohio is flying in to spend the weekend with us too!

Last week, I did some shopping for them at a local store called Paper Skyscraper and got some really cute items there…Greenwich Trading Company soaps, bunny slippers, and more. I’ve also ordered some favorite childhood collectibles on eBay, but last night, I was on a candy mission.

Easter candy is the best. I know you’re thinking Valentine or Christmas candy might be better, but I’m telling you, Easter candy wins, hands down.

Every year, when they put the Easter candy out…right after Valentine’s Day…I purchase some Whoppers Mini Robin Eggs. I don’t eat Whoppers any other time of year, but at Easter, I want the Mini Robin Eggs. They make me think of my friend, Angela. We have been friends for 33 years, so we’ve made lots of crazy memories. In the early 2000s, when we were both married without children, I visited her around Easter one year, and we sat on the sofa in her den, laughing and eating Whoppers Mini Robin Eggs. We might have eaten them till we both felt sick. But the point is…I have to buy them every year, because they make me think of Angela and good times!

I have other favorites too, so whether she likes them or not, my daughter gets these candies every year:

  • Peeps. I think Peeps are the best-selling Easter candies. Some people absolutely love them. Me? Not so much. But the Easter Bunny put them in my basket every year anyway. As an adult, I’ve discovered they aren’t that bad, but still not my favorites to eat. They are, however, necessities for Easter baskets. It just wouldn’t be an Easter basket without Peeps. I feel pretty sure my daughter throws them away every year, but this year, she and her friends will be getting a Peeps candy/sock gift combo. So cute!s-l1600-2
  • Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs. When I was a little girl, Daddy would give us our “allowance” on Saturday mornings and take us to the “candy store,” which was really a little, locally-owned convenience store called Murphy’s. Mr. and Mrs. Murphy were always there, and they were always kind to us. We would go in with our money and pick the candies we wanted. My favorite was Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. I would pick up those first, before getting Now & Laters, Super Bubble Bubble Gum, a Three Musketeers Bar, Spree, a Blow Pop, and sometimes a Marathon Bar. But Reese’s were my favorite. Somehow, the Reese’s Peanut Butter eggs taste more like the peanut butter cups tasted when I was a child. Whether my daughter likes it or not, she’s getting those.9101dS1S5jL._SX522_
  • Pez. Come on…Easter baskets wouldn’t be complete without an Easter-themed Pez dispenser. Little chick? Little Lamb? Little Easter Bunny? Sold! Pez candies are OK tasting, but the real novelty is in the dispenser. easter-pez-127510-im1
  • Fun Dip. My daughter loved Fun Dip when she was little, and so did I. They make a “spring” edition….pastel colors. She’ll be getting some in her basket, and so will her friends!springtime-fun-dip-multi-pack-16ct-sold-out-2
  • Chocolate Bunny. I don’t care if it’s good chocolate or cheap chocolate. Because I always received a chocolate bunny in my Easter basket, my daughter and her friends get chocolate bunnies too. One year, my daughter left it on the dining room table…right where the sun shines through the window. I walked in later to find an unidentifiable chocolate creature that looked a little zombie-ish, because it had melted.Palmer-Hollow-Milk-Chocolate-Bunny
  • Chocolate Cross. It’s Easter, people. solid-chocolate-cross-2-5oz-milk-or-white-chocolate-22

And then, there are gifts of the non-candy variety:

  • Devotional Book or Bible. There are devotional books that contain daily or weekly devotionals. There are books that explain The Bible in plain speak. There are books of Bible stories for children…and frankly, I see no shame in reading those myself! When we were little, Mother would read to us nightly from a children’s book of Bible stories. Amazon offers lots of options for devotional books and Bibles. I found one for teenage girls here.51LHcMF7M7L._SX352_BO1,204,203,200_

Silver cross necklace. Nordstrom has a nice variety of cross necklaces…a meaningful gift to add to the Easter basket. You can see their selection here.

There are other little things I put into the baskets on Easter, so I’m going to share some of those ideas too (some will appear in baskets this year):

  • Lip gloss
  • Hand lotion
  • Garden gnome (every…single…year)
  • Flower seeds or Grow Kit
  • Starbucks gift card
  • Other gift cards (Chick-Fil-A, Target, Smoothie King, etc.)
  • Good-smelling soaps. I purchased some made by Greenwich Trading Company.
  • Lacrosse and field hockey balls.
  • Decorative cross. Again, it’s Easter, and a decorative cross makes a lovely gift any time of year…to remember He is risen.

Happy Easter, friends! Christ died so we could have everlasting life, and on the third day, He arose. Let’s celebrate His resurrection.

 

Today Is Mother’s Birthday

My mother was a little firecracker of a woman. She really was little. She claimed to be five feet tall, and maybe she was…with the right shoes. In her final years, she was probably more along the lines of 4’10”. But she had a big heart and a big sense of humor.

Lots of my friends have lost parents. They know what it’s like. It’s life-changing. I have a friend who recently lost her mother, and then her daddy passed away a month later. Heartbreaking.

My daddy died in 2006…pancreatic cancer. My mother passed away in December. Her 79th birthday is today, September 3, but she didn’t make it this far.

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Mother on her 75th birthday, in 2014, with my daughter and my nephew.

Here’s the deal: Mother would not want us to sit around crying about her. She would be thrilled to think we have laughed and told funny stories about her since she passed. She had a great sense of humor that got better with age, and nobody could make her laugh like my brother could. She died on the morning of December 30, and that evening, I met my brother and some of his friends for dinner/drinks. She would love to know the restaurant’s owner, a family friend, had a cup of Bailey’s and coffee at a seat for her.

Interesting that my mother’s birthday coincides with Labor Day, the first weekend of college football season. She loved college football. Actually, she loved watching most sports…baseball, basketball, track, etc. College football was her favorite, though.

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Mother and I used to watch football games “together.” She lived about 400 miles from me, but we would call each other and talk during football games. Everybody knows I don’t actually watch Alabama games till after the fact (I record them), because I think I’m bad luck, but sometimes, Mother would call me after an exciting play and tell me to turn on the TV and watch the replay. Often, she “watched” Bama games with her friend, Nell, via telephone, as well.

This will be my first football season without her. Unfortunately, she missed Alabama winning the National Championship in overtime last year. She would have loved the game-winning touchdown pass. (See that here.) She likely would have watched it a hundred times since, if she’d been here to see it. In fact, she probably wouldn’t read the rest of this blog post, because she would still be watching the video…repeatedly. She would have loved that Alabama won on Elvis’s birthday too, since she was a big Elvis fan.

She’d have had a big smile on her face throughout that Alabama/Louisville game Saturday night.

When mother was in the hospital in her final days, she requested I put bowl games on the television in her room. I remember her waking up at some point and saying, “Isn’t there a football game on?” No matter how bad the bowl game was, she wanted that on instead of anything else. She wasn’t actively watching the games, but she liked them as her background noise. That’s how much she loved football.

She also enjoyed reading the Bible. She wasn’t much of a churchgoer, but she read the Bible daily. After she passed, I found little notes with Bible verses in her room, in the kitchen, in the living room, and on the back porch. A sweet lady named Lois stayed with Mother during the day. Lois knows the Bible, so she and Mother would read the Bible and discuss it. Many times, we thanked God for Lois, and I know Mother did. They enjoyed each other’s company. We all love Lois.

Never one to make a big deal about her own birthday, she would say, “Every day should be celebrated.” And she was right. She was usually right about most things. Lots of people went to Mother for advice or simply to talk. I’ve had countless people tell me what a good listener she was. I’m proud of that. She was always a good listener for me and gave great advice. She was a wise woman. I wrote a blog at Mother’s Day about things she had taught me. You can see it here. I sure miss her…every single day.

Mother loved her family, football, sunflowers, homegrown tomatoes, pound cake (made by our friend, Jane), friends, and she just loved to sit and chat. That’s what I miss most…just sitting and chatting with her. In fact, just yesterday, I wanted to call her to tell her about some folks getting married.

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A big sunflower I cut in my backyard this weekend. It’s our centerpiece for Mother’s birthday.

We ordered a new flower arrangement for her grave over the weekend. Today, in honor of her birthday, I’ll make a tomato sandwich with a tomato from my garden for lunch. She and Daddy used to grow tomatoes every summer…sometimes successfully. She would never believe I grew tomato plants this summer that produced lots of healthy, delicious tomatoes. I’ll cut some of the sunflowers (her favorite and Daddy’s favorite too) from the garden for the table’s centerpiece, and we’ll have some birthday cake with Bailey’s and coffee. And we’ll watch the Florida State/Virginia Tech football game. Florida State was her second favorite team. If she were here, we would talk and laugh.

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Forgiveness

Today, I was looking through Facebook while I was sitting in an airport, and a friend had posted a video about forgiveness. The video is really good, and I will tell you where to find it in a minute. When I boarded my flight, I couldn’t stop thinking about that video and what it meant. It was in my brain! “Forgiveness” is a word we hear all the time. There are lots of quotes and Bible verses about it:

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.–Mahatma Gandhi

It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.–Maya Angelou

I can have peace of mind only when I forgive rather than judge. –Gerald Jampolsky

Forgive yourself for your faults and mistakes and move on. –Les Brown

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. –Lewis B. Smedes

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.–Matthew 6:14, New International Version of The Holy Bible

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Forgiveness.

The video I saw is on a Facebook page called Have a Little Faith. And the speaker in the video is a woman named Nadia Bolz-Weber, who is described on the site as “a feminist, no-nonsense Evangelical Lutheran pastor who will blow you away with her honesty, hilarity, and plenty of ‘holy sh*t’ enlightenment.” Wow. I’m not sure I would have found her at all except for the video my friend posted. You can see the video here. She says forgiveness is not about “niceness.” She says holding onto anger “feeds the evil.” She encourages us to think of forgiveness as “snapping the chain that connects us” to the evil. It gives us freedom. Free people are not chained to resentment. While she has an unconventional approach, I like what she has to say about forgiveness.

It’s a simple concept, really. Choose forgiveness. Find a way to choose forgiveness. It’s not a sign of weakness. Instead, it is a sign of great strength. It can be difficult, but it’s just like most things in life…the more we practice, the better we become at it. It is a choice, and for me, it is a choice that I make not so much for the other person as for myself. I simply cannot be tethered to anger. It will suck the life out of me.

In my 51 years of life, I have offended many…usually unintentionally, but sometimes, it was intentional. Most of the intentional offenses occurred in my younger days…usually in response to a perceived transgression against me. There’s that “chain” concept. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned a lot more about forgiveness. Frankly, it’s a lot more fun to forgive. Holding on to anger or hatred is exhausting. And seeking revenge is exhausting too. All that anger only hurts the person who harbors it. I’m not that person.

Of course, there are some people who just can’t forgive. I don’t think there’s anyone I haven’t forgiven. There are people I don’t want to spend time with, because of personality or value differences, but as far as forgiveness, I have forgiven. I don’t harbor anger toward anyone. Well, I can’t think of anyone toward whom I harbor anger. If I can’t think of anyone, I guess that means there’s no anger.

Yet, there are people who, I’m sure, haven’t forgiven me for perceived transgressions over the years, and I have a way of handling that: I forgive myself. As long as I have offered a sincere apology, I forgive myself and move on. That’s because I truly feel that if someone is incapable of forgiving me, then I don’t want to be friends with them anyway. I don’t need to be chained to them. So I move on without regret. My 14-yr-old daughter once summed it up this way to me, “Mom, when you’ve offered a sincere apology, you’ve done everything you could do…especially for something unintentional. Let it go. There is nothing you can do about it now. But you have to forgive yourself and move on.” She is right…the wisdom of a 14-yr-old. I wasn’t always able to do that, but fortunately, I learned a way. Remember the Serenity Prayer? “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

My mother had the Serenity Prayer framed in several rooms of our various homes as I was growing up. A favorite was one that matched our kitchen wallpaper in Spanish Fort where we lived from 1975 to 1977. It looked like this, except hers was in a nicer frame:

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The wall decor is a good everyday reminder. It reminds me to forgive (the things I can change) and move on (the things I cannot change). To see/purchase Prayer of Serenity wall decor from Amazon, click here.

Years ago, my dad was talking with a friend whose sister had gone through a bitter divorce. For years, she had harbored hatred and resentment toward her ex-husband. But one day, she let it go. Her brother told it this way: It was like she was swimming down a river holding a big pack of gear. The pack was heavy and cumbersome. She was working so hard to hold on to the pack that she couldn’t see the beautiful foliage, birds, and other wildlife on the banks of the river. She was missing it all. Eventually, she was too tired to hold onto the pack. She let go of the pack and started swimming with ease. Suddenly, she noticed the beauty of life around her.

There are some people who want to carry anger. That’s their choice. I choose not to carry that load. I choose to see the beauty life offers. I choose joy over anger, but we all live differently. We also all sin against God and against each other every single day. If you think you don’t, you are lying to yourself. Because I know how to forgive, I live a life of peace. I try to remember this: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”–John 8:7.

If someone can’t forgive you, as my daughter says, “That’s on her/him.” And she’s right.  Thank God for the wisdom of a 14-yr-old.

I must have done something right.