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My best friend in all the world, other than my wife Angela, was Matt Auten. Today he would have turned 50. I say would have because Matt died in a tragic accident almost 5 years ago. I wrote about it here. His birthday always puts me in a reflective mood, a gift that he left with me. Matt and I met my second year in college, the fall of 1987. I was an RA and he was on my hall. It took some time for our friendship to develop, mainly because Matt was so quiet. When I heard him sing I realized that there was some depth to him. Up to that point he hadn’t written any of his own songs, but the songs that he did cover from other artists resonated with me. He was a “deep waters” kind of guy, and you had to sit with him for a while before he would open up. My friendship with Matt grew throughout that year and continued the next year when he took my role as RA in Howerton Hall and I moved on to be RA at McGregor Hall, a better gig because it was an upperclassmen dorm. I say our friendship grew that second year because Matt hated being an RA. So he spent countless hours in my dorm room across campus rather than dealing with the issues that he hated confronting in his own dorm.  

It was that year that Matt really started writing songs.  I can clearly remember the night he knocked on my door at 1:00am, waking me up to tell me he had written a song and wanted to play it for me to see if I thought it was any good.  I then became the first person ever to hear “The Endlessness is Kind” performed live.  And yeah, I told him it was okay for his first song.  He continued to write songs, often flowing from our conversations (Up from the Ashes) or from his college crush (As Long as the Music Lasts).  Those were really formative times for me.  Matt asked questions that I hadn’t even thought of.  He walked that fine line between creative mystic and depressed cynic.  He saw life very clearly…sometimes too clearly.  Most of us can hide in the illusion of our day to day, but not Matt.  He saw past the distractions to what was going on at a deeper level.  

But this gift of Matt’s was heavy to carry. He struggled with depression at times throughout His life. He saw his own failures far too clearly and his desire to follow Jesus was constantly assaulted by his clear assessment of his own failure in that task.  He once wrote me, “I feel alot of fear and anger, which unfortunately are not fruits of the Spirit, even in the loosest of the Bible paraphrases.” So many of his songs were his desire to not just know about grace as a concept, but to actually live in it. It was almost as if Matt had to truly experience the darkness in order to describe the beauty of the light, and I loved him for it.  It came out in lyrics like this (Happy That You Came):

You kill me with Your kindness, You've sure got a lot of nerve

To expect me to accept it with no feeling of reserve.

I could deal more with Your anger, a slamming door’s the proper sound.

Love has never been an object I could get my hands around.

I used to feel a sense of purpose, I think I got it off TV

If I could just catch hold of beauty I could be some better me.

I don’t know how such a load of it could have ever seemed profound,

Love has never been an object I could get my hands around.

Back when Your name was Jesus if You had met me on the road,

Would you have held me like Your child, would You have stripped me of my load?

Would You have passed me by in silence were I withered on the ground?

Love has never been an object I could get my hands around.

With a smile like Easter morning You just stand there in the rain,

Like there’s nothing in the world to fear, like there’s no such thing as pain.

I would give all that I own to have never heard Your name from anyone 

but You, my friend,

But I’m happy that you came, happy that you came, happy that you came.

People like Matt are rare. They can see in ways that call all of us to see deeper. As most of us go through life we can see the goodness and beauty of things to a certain point.  We can also see the darkness of evil to an equal distance on the opposite end of the spectrum. But those few that see beauty and goodness further and deeper than most, must also see the darkness more clearly and deeply. They stand in the gap for the rest of us, pointing out the beauty, but they also have to live with a larger understanding of the opposite. It’s a gift to Matt gave to you and me, but it is birthed out of a calling that takes a toll.


The last time Matt and I spoke was about 6 months before he died. I was in North Carolina visiting family and drove from Boone to Asheville to have dinner with Matt. We ate at a Mexican restaurant not too far from his house (with us it was always Mexican or Pizza). For the first time ever, in our conversation that night, I sensed Matt was beginning to make peace with his struggles. He had softened in the way he looked at himself, and that was giving him more grace toward others. He was working with some real “politically and religiously liberal people” and yet he actually liked them. He was thankful for them and could see God at work in them and through them. This was a real release for him. It was almost as if he relaxed, not feeling the need to fix them or their thinking, but letting God do His slow work in His way in their lives. That, in turn, gave Matt the freedom to let God do His slow work in His way in Matt’s own life. The darkness, as oppressive as it was at times, couldn’t stop what God was doing. We talked about a million things, but I felt that for the first time I had ever seen, Matt was more at peace with what he was living. He could still see the darkness, but he had seen enough of the light, even in dark places, to trust that light would have its way.

So many of his songs were prophetic in that he was describing that for which he was longing. He would catch glimpses of ideas and truths and write songs about them. I can’t remember when he wrote Grain by Grain, but I loved it from the first time I heard it. I think he always thought of it as a song fragment, unfinished. (That’s why he paired it with an instrumental of Come Thou Fount on his New Found Land album.) But that’s really appropriate when you consider what it is saying.  God will have you.  He will make you into who you are to be.  Even if it takes forever.  Even if you keep running away to your worthless loves, He will gain you grain by grain.  There is a peace in that.  A surrender to the fact that even you can’t mess up what God is doing. 

What the wind cannot lift it will wear away

What the waves can’t break, they shape a new way

All I am and all I will be

Are buried in all You will be to me

Rather than lose me to my worthless loves

You gain me grain by grain

What the wind cannot lift it will wear away

All we are and all we will be is buried in who God will be to us.  He will not lose us.  He will shape us, in His slow way, until we are fully His.  The point is to rest in that truth.  To grow into that trust and rest.  The older I get the more I see that following Jesus is less about doing things for Him, and more and more about receiving what He has done for me.  Once again, on Matt’s birthday, I am the one who receives a gift.

My hope is that Matt was coming to see that in the final months of his life.  He surely understands it now.  I will miss him until the day I die, but in a real way God is gaining me grain by grain even in my pain and sorrow.  The words Matt wrote bring life to dead places.  They teach me to trust a God who loves me, who will never give up on me.  I recently found a statement/poem written by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that sums up all so much of what God taught me, and is teaching me through Matt.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything

to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way to something

unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress

that it is made by passing through

some stages of instability—

and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;

your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,

let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on,

as though you could be today what time

(that is to say, grace and circumstances

acting on your own good will)

will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit

gradually forming within you will be.

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing

that his hand is leading you,

and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself

in suspense and incomplete.


(Interested in more of Matt’s music? Check out the playlist here on youtube.)

Jeff KuhnComment