I had just come off a one year hiatus from my college studies in between my freshman and sophomore year when I met Shannon at Western Carolina University. I was starting a new major in Communication and she was a wide-eyed freshman. We were about a year apart in age and world’s apart in difference of personalities, but our spirits were kindred. Almost immediately she drew me into her little world and we became best friends.
Only a few months before arriving back on the campus of Western I had encountered Jesus, for myself. Although I had been raised in a Christian home and believed in “a God” I never knew Him in a personal way. He majorly encountered my life and shattered my misperceptions of Him the summer before I started back at school. When Shannon met me I was desperately trying to get a wrangle on all that was changing in my life. I played it cool like I knew all about this “Christian” thing and she never seemed the wiser. We talked all the time about God. Her love for Him was the most evident thing about her from the first moment I met her to the last time I saw her on this earth. Loving Jesus was, for her, effortless. It was as easy as breathing. At times in my Christian walk I would find me beating myself up over the fact that I hadn’t prayed enough that week or read enough of the Bible or I wasn’t nice enough to people that day, etc. Not truly understanding the heart of God, grace or true love. But Shannon…she just got it, at least that’s how she seemed to me. She never got down on herself (in front of others) about what she could be doing better to serve the Lord, she just loved. She loved with her whole heart. She loved Jesus and she loved people. I grew so much as a result of knowing her.
I’ve thought back a lot to my memories with her lately. Sometimes I find myself regretting the fact that outside of a random message to each other here and there, I didn’t see her or talk with her at all in the last year of her life. But then I try to stop myself and thank God for the years we did spend together and all the wonderful times we shared. We first bonded over the fact that we were both born in Fort Myers, Florida. I mean, c’mon, that’s cool and super random! One of the highlight memories I have with Shannon were the drives from Cullowhee to Biltmore Baptist Church in Asheville for Vertical service on Sunday nights. That was a solid hour in the car, one way, listening to crazy music and talking about every topic possible in that span of time; and with Shannon, we covered a lot of ground! We worshipped together, prayed together, learned together and talked deep together. We could talk about anything, absolutely anything, and she would still find a reason to laugh and smile. I used to scratch my head and think, “Can anyone really be this happy all the time? Does she ever have a bad day?” And the reality is, yes, Shannon did have bad days. We all do. But she didn’t allow the bad times in life to control her or take away from the true joy she walked in everyday. She CHOSE to allow the light within her to shine through, no matter the circumstances.
It is impossible to incapsulate my thoughts, feelings, emotions, love, memories with and respect for Shannon into one blog post but my only aim is to express her life as I saw it. She was light. Jesus teaches us in Mathew 5:16 to, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Shannon literally embodied this verse. She lit up a room when she entered it and had the ability to completely change the atmosphere. This happened not just because she was always prone to laugh and smile as soon as she entered, but simply because of who she was in Christ. I’ve said this before and I will say it again, when you encountered Shannon you encountered Jesus. No truer words could be spoken! I remember having a public speaking class with Shannon and watching her get up to give her speeches. You could tell she was slightly nervous but she would completely win over the crowd every time by how honest she spoke and how authentically she’d approach her topic. Professor Manning’s consistent critique for Shannon’s speeches was “let’s try to use the “ummm” less Shannon”! For anyone who knows Shannon’s love of the word “ummm” you can appreciate the humor in that critique 🙂 My first and most vivid memory of Shannon was her inviting me to her dorm room, putting on some corny rap song, flipping open her macbook, turning on the camera and recording us rapping along with and dancing to whatever ridiculous song she chose. Oh yes, that was typical Shannon. Everything had to be documented and the more outlandish action taken, the better. She was outgoing, energetic, charismatic, afraid of nothing and constantly happy. I was shy, introverted, deep thinking, skeptical, intense and sheepish. Yet, Shannon never tried to change me. She 100 percent accepted me for who I was. I believe I can speak for all of her friends when I say that she loved us all unconditionally.
As I’ve grieved and mourned her loss this past week I have felt a flood of feelings. I found myself seriously hating kayaking, which was what she was doing the day that she passed away. I felt like it took my friend from me. When she started getting into it in the middle of her college career it consumed her and I began to see less and less of her. When I found that she had died on the river I held that sport responsible for her death and I know that wasn’t fair, but I’m trying to be honest. She loved kayaking. As if it were possible for her to be anymore joyful than she already was, being on the river really and truly made her happy. Everyone that knew her knew this about her. In fact, she was quickly becoming one of the best female kayakers in the country (which is something I certainly liked bragging about on her behalf).
I have found peace in the knowledge that she died doing what she loved. But I had this thought one day…recently I preached a sermon on Enoch and the pursuit of God to the middle school and high school students at my church. In Genesis 5:24 the Bible tells us that, “Enoch walked with God and he was not, for God took him.” We don’t know much about this Enoch character except that he walked intimately with God and then God took him to heaven. He never saw an earthly death. I’ve studied this person and this story deeply. What I came to realize was that Enoch loved God so much that God literally got to a point where He simply couldn’t stand being separated from Enoch by the earthen realm so He snatched him from this world. God was jealous for Enoch to such a point that He just had to have him. Shannon embodied the pure joy and light of Jesus to such a level that I sometimes though it supernatural. She loved Jesus…boy, did she love Him. Could it be that Jesus just had to have her to Himself and He couldn’t wait another day?…
This past Friday hundreds and hundreds of people came out to a beautiful field that hugs a winding river in Andrews, NC to honor the memory of Shannon. I was blessed to attend and weep, laugh and reminisce in the presence of my closest college friends. The peace of God and joy of Shannon’s spirit was evident that entire evening. It was unlike anything I have ever witnessed.
As I go on in life I plan to take Shannon with me. One way I am taking her with me is to pursue God with my whole heart. She won’t know until I meet her in heaven just how profoundly her pure walk with Jesus affected, and still affects, my life. I’m going to chase hard after Him and only hope I touch as many lives as she had in her 23 years.
Another way I am taking her with me is to smile more. She loved to smile. That smile affected people. I want to smile more.
And lastly, I will take her with me by keeping a point-and-shoot digital camera by my side as often as possible. She documented everything. It didn’t matter where she went, she had some sort of camera with her and because of that she has so many memories captured. I realized from her passing just how much I wish I had more photos of her and all the other amazing friends I’ve had throughout the years. It’s amazing how much a photo can jog your memory back to wonderful times.
So that’s it for me. In whatever big or small ways I can I will take Shannon’s spirit, light and joy with me. She has done a marvelous job at glorifying her Father in heaven. She has radically changed this earth and left behind one heck of a legacy. I refuse to let myself cry or break down over losing her anymore because she wouldn’t want that. Her and I actually had a conversation one day about how we wanted our funerals to go. We both agreed we wanted them to be parties since we knew we’d be partying in heaven. Gosh, I miss that girl.
Here’s to you, Shannon. I’ll never get over you friend. My heart has been hurting so badly since you left us. But I treasure my moments with you and am hugging my friends and family a little tighter than before. I love you. ‘Til we see each other on the other side…