Ed. note: I wrote the following about my friend Shawn after his death two years ago. Today is Shawn’s birthday – he would have been 34. As much as I miss him, I thank God for the time we had together. There was no one quite like Shawnie.
God created Shawn for this.
I have no doubt when God conceived of my dear friend Shawn Kuykendall, he did so knowing He was creating a man who would touch the lives of thousands. He created a man who would speak up for his creator when faced with earthly destruction. He created Shawn so that others might come to know their savior.
Shawn and I met in early 2005 when we were both “rookies” at D.C. United. I had moved across the country from grad school in Milwaukee to take “my initial dream job” and he had been drafted by his hometown team to compete on the field. I knew very few in the Nation’s Capital. Shawn made sure that wasn’t the case for long.
As anyone who knew Shawn will tell you, he had a unique way of connecting with people, endearing himself in only a few minutes, making complete strangers instantly comfortable.
I recall very early in my first weeks at United, Shawn coming up to the offices (something few players did with regularity) to say hello and seek me out. At the time, the team shared RFK Stadium with the newly-relocated Nationals and he came up one afternoon to see if I wanted to take a break and watch a little baseball. I did.
Shawn bought us both a couple of hot dogs and we sat in the orange seats of 50-year old RFK and got to know each other. We discovered we had both been home schooled, came from large families (he had four siblings, I had three), and that our Christian faith was our center.
It was the start of a friendship that I count as one of the greatest blessings of my life.
Shawn and I grew close. He was one of my best friends. But, Shawn was the kind of guy who many counted as one of their best friends. He just had a lightness and happiness about him. His personality was huge and engaging. He loved being the center of attention and making people laugh – he loved laughing with you.
As I got to know Shawn more deeply, we spoke frequently of our faith (And soccer.. we talked a lot about soccer). We met weekly with our friends, brothers Jason and David McGraw, in a bible study. We attended church together. We supported each other in our faith and took on the big questions that every human faces during their time on earth.
One of the things I loved about Shawn was his willingness to talk about his imperfections and flaws. He was keenly aware of his shortcomings and we often spoke about the areas in our lives that we needed to be better, how we needed to better represent the faith in God that we professed. There was a knowledge and an understanding that we would always fall short, but we knew God’s grace and forgiveness covered each and every misstep we made. We knew in our hearts when death eventually came, it was not the end, but the beginning.
No one could have predicted, however, that death might come soon for Shawn.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, less than nine months ago, the prognosis was not good. We were told his cancer was rare, aggressive, and untreatable.
It was devastating.
The suffering and death of the elderly is expected, commonplace. Losing a grandparent, or a parent when old is difficult, but something we anticipate and for which we can begin to prepare.
The death of someone young shakes us to the core like nothing in life. Everything becomes trivial in comparison. Heartache becomes an unwanted, constant companion.
Shawn was scared. He wanted to live. He wanted more time with his parents, his brothers and sisters, his adorable nieces and nephew. He wanted to fall in love and get married. He wanted a family of his own. He wanted to experience all of the many blessings God gives us in life.
His faith, however, remained strong.
When he shared his diagnosis in a blog post, he wrote:
“[M]y biggest ray of hope is that God has a purpose for me. And that has always been to bring glory to Christ. I believe in his ability to miraculously heal my body, but beating cancer has very little to do with beating it in an earthly sense. Cancer won’t beat me because it can’t take away my hope and joy in the the salvation that Christ provides me. Is it scary?… oh yes… Is it hard?… the hardest thing I’ve ever faced… But is my sovereign God not in control? He most certainly is in control. I will hold onto that each day and fight my best to heal my body and fight each day to trust God.“
We spoke of the opportunity before him. The opportunity, through his suffering, to share the wonderful, life-saving news of Jesus. For those who don’t know – or don’t accept – the love of their creator, it’s a nearly impossible thing to understand. How one can be facing pain and possible death and still give thanks and praise to God.
How, simultaneously, one can ask to live, pray for healing, but accept that God may have a different plan. A plan that may very well end in death.
Because of Shawn’s career in soccer – both locally, at American Univerisity, D.C. United, and for many years as a youth coach, he was well known within the community. After his diagnosis, Shawn created a hashtag (#kuykenstrong), a blog to document his journey, and received requests from the media to tell his story.
God was providing Shawn an opportunity. A chance to share his faith with tens of thousands of people, likely hundreds of thousands, and possibly, millions of people.
Shawn, scared as he was, did not waver.
Shawn fulfilled what God had in mind when He created our friend. Throughout his suffering, he spoke of his faith. In a Washington Post article that took up the entire front page of the sports section in November, one of the final quotes from Shawn was: “God has a plan. Live or die. I win.”
Through Shawn, God is reaching out, imploring his children to consider their mortality. To consider what comes after our time on this earth is done.
God created Shawn for you.
Shawn’s death brings so much sadness to those who loved him. My heart aches for his family and the loss they are feeling. But, I am not sad for Shawn. He sought God in life, professed Jesus as his savior, and accepted God’s grace and forgiveness. My friend has been reunited with his creator in heaven.
I thank God for the friend he gave me in Shawn. I feel pain and sadness now, but I joyfully look forward to the time when I will see him again. Until then, I will honor Shawn’s life by doing what he did so bravely – praising and thanking God for the free gift of eternal salvation, secured by the death and resurrection of His son, and our savior, Jesus Christ.
I love you, Shawn.
(Photo by Toni Sandys for the Washington Post)
“Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” —Psalm 73:23-26