Friendship: A Testimony

At the end of our last Sweet Mercies meeting, Barbara Reynolds, shared this testimony of God's grace on her life through an unlikely friendship that blossomed into life long best friends. May you see God glorified and his perfect sovereign plan magnified as you read this beautiful story!

In September 1988, while stationed in San Diego, my husband Jim received orders to the Norfolk Naval Base. These orders were not in my plans at all. My plans had us being stationed back in the D.C. area, which had been my home and where all my friends were. Our 5 years in San Diego had been and still remain the worst years of my life. I was not a Christian, I was a horrible mother, I was a horrible wife and I had been in a horrible car accident that had done nothing to alter my choice of lifestyle. I couldn’t wait to put it all behind me. I was so sure of this plan to get my life back on track that my little girl Katie and I had already moved back to Northern Virginia without official orders and without Jim and I had already gotten a job and put her in school. It was a perfect plan in my mind.  Obviously the Navy and the Lord had different plans for our little family and, as is so often the case with these two forces, my thoughts on what was best for us, for me did not happen. Not only were we not being stationed in Northern Virginia, but I was unexpectedly pregnant.
In February of 89 Katie and I moved to Stewart Drive in the Kempsville area of Virginia Beach. Jim would be joining us in the spring.  The house that we bought was a dream house on a cul-de-sac. Katie started school, and I tried to pretend that San Diego had never happened and that we were a nice and normal family with a baby on the way.
The Lord…the Lord and his plans. There was this family across the street. There seemed to be millions of them, all adorable as they could be and all with huge dark eyes and dark hair. They were the Bendinelli family. They have moved to this area over a year before from Cleveland, to plant this very church that so many of us now call our church home. There were 6 of them at that time…David, Sheila, Kerri, Jordan, Ryan and Brittany. Natalie would come 3 years later.  My Katie was beside herself having a family with so many kids right across the street.  Soon I found out they were homeschooled and I thought, NO way was my daughter hanging out with a bunch of weirdos. I had barely even heard of such a thing as homeschooling, and there were so many of them, and they always had company, and there were always kids galore in their home & playing in the cul-de-sac…It was different from anything we had ever experienced. They welcomed my little girl with opened arms and she was forever in love with them all.
I was not in love at all…I worried about my precious daughter and their influences on her. Which was incredibly ironic given the kind of mother I had been. What I did not realize in my arrogance was that they really could have and should have been worried about our influences.  It will help set the stage to know that Katie’s favorite movie when she was only 6, was “Dirty Dancing” and the Bendinelli kids barely watched TV much less Scooby Doo which was one of our favorite cartoons. There is an infamous story about words Katie tried to teach to those wide eyed, innocent Bendinelli kids, words that I had told her she was not allowed to say, and then how Sheila came and talked to me about the incident. It was priceless…and my first experience with a loving peacemaker.
The Lord was orchestrating this relationship wasn’t He? I could go on for a very long time about the ways He showed His love to me through this family, using Sheila as His instrument. There are simply too many ways to count how He used her and her family to draw me to Himself. There were the invitations to Park Days in the summer. There were the nearly constant invitations (no matter how often I said no) to meet lots of other people who also seemed to be so happy, so full of joy. There were the meals that showed up at our door after our precious miracle Jake was born that June. So much happiness and kindness swirling around was nerve-wracking to me.  I was being drawn into a life I was completely unfamiliar with and it was happening because Sheila was relentless in her pursuit of me. Regardless of my weirdness, she pursued me, she invited me, and she never seemed to be affected by my coarseness, my complete lack of any knowledge of God, by anything I threw her way. She was then and is now the epitome of James 3:17-18.
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
We are connected for life, Sheila and I, because of the complicated tapestry that the Lord used to bring me and my family into His kingdom. Sheila was obedient to reach out to a neighbor even though we must have seemed like the unlikeliest of relationships for her and her family.
Kerri was my daughter’s maid of honor on her wedding day almost 9 years ago and Katie was in Kerri’s wedding last year. David performed Katie’s wedding ceremony right behind me on this patio on the land that he helped to locate as a perfect place for this church. He baptized me and both of my children.  Katie and her youngest flew to Denver in January to meet Kerri’s first child Mila. Jake and Katie will always call the Bendinelli children their family. My dear friend Sheila showed up on my doorstep last May as a surprise…just happened to be passing through from Denver, via Ohio to NC! It was a marvelous 24 hours, and all the years we have spent apart made no difference whatsoever…we talked and talked about God’s goodness to us and to our children even in the midst of trials and struggles. We talked about hard things, all that we have learned, but all the time encouraging each other about the trust we have in our Savior. And we laughed and laughed…

Our 27 years of friendship has been marked by her joy, her gentleness, her unending patience, her gratefulness to the Lord for His saving work in her and David’s lives and now in the lives of all 5 of their children. She loves to see people happy and enjoying life and experiencing what God intends for us all. She taught me to be a better mother, a better wife and to love people like Jesus loves…despite their unloveliness. She loves me, she loves Jim, she loves my children, and nothing we have ever done or said has affected that love. Is that not exactly how the Lord loves us?

I have always wanted to be more like Sheila because of the very ways she mirrors Jesus and the very ways she always has pointed me to God. She is, through the power of the Holy Spirit, a person who is full of joy, a peacemaker, and a woman who seeks to rely on God’s perfect wisdom. What amazing attributes for any of us to want to grow in.
I sent this testimony to Heather Hughes this week and she wrote me back with her thoughts about the Bendinelli’s impact on our family.   She said,  “…Sheila and the rest of the Bendinellis shared with you — their beautiful lives. They lived a certain way. They were patient. They made peace. They were slow to take offense. They were long-suffering. And peace followed them!  Because of their faithfulness to live like their Father, two families, who, under normal circumstances, would never have been friends, were brought near and linked together in love.”  
So…This was just a glimpse of my life being Sheila Bendinelli’s friend.  Who would have ever thought there would have been this unbreakable bond between us? I suspect there are people in this room right now that remember Sheila’s weird neighbor all those years ago, we sure were mighty rough around the edges.  If you ever run into Brittany ask her about the time Jake stole a motorized car from a neighbor and drove it to her house to pick her up for a joy ride. He was 3 years old!

My friend Sheila, in constant humility, opened up her whole life and all its miracles and imperfections to me so that I would know that this God of hers loves the broken and the guilty. She opened up what a life that is dependent on God looks like. She loved me unconditionally and she shared with me all that the Lord had shared with her. I will be dancing “on the streets that are golden” because the Lord used my friend Sheila and her obedience to her Savior and her desire to be like Him.