That’s a sound they’ll never know

Yesterday afternoon I was spending time with a few friends, and as is often the case these days, it had been a minute since we had seen each another. By and by, one person commented that my hair had gotten fairly long. And it truly has, though not especially long. Not yet. Anyway, he said I looked like the sound guy at a concert. It immediately resonated with me, echoing a similar thing my brother said years ago, the last time my hair got long. My brother had spent time on the road with a couple of touring bands, so he knew what he was talking about.

That comment had resonated too, maybe because he made it as we were preparing the reception hall for my other brother’s wedding and I took it as a compliment of my competence in what we were doing. It also reminded me that in elementary school I had somehow been given the task of setting up the PA for school assemblies. There’s no good explanation for why this mantle fell on me, but maybe I got curious about the antiquated equipment sitting to the side of the stage in the gymnasium. It probably looked a lot like my dad’s Heathkit ham radio.

But it was also very satisfying to get things like cords, mics, and amps organized well and set up properly. Sound systems are like computer networks, nobody notices them until they break. The better they work, the more they disappear into the background and allow whatever they communicate to come through with better fidelity. The same is true of sound guys. The better their work, the less you’ll see them. But if the vibe is really good at a show, the sound guy played a significant part in that by removing obstacles between you and the performer.

The more I reflect on this, the more I see it as useful metaphor for my ministry. Sure, I’m front and center a lot. That’s part of the role, and if I were to avoid it or shrug it off, that would cause a problem for the system that I work in. And there’s no use denying that I’m part of a system or that it can simply be discarded. But maybe there is something to making adjustments, getting the cables organized, and working on a better balance.

A lot of this won’t be obvious when it works well, but it’s absence can be glaring. For instance, if the offering comes to the altar right at the point when we start singing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” that’s just going to feel right and make sense. If it comes too early or late, things will feel off even if nobody can pinpoint why. What’s true of little things in the liturgy is true of little things in areas like pastoral care too.

Of course there’s a limit too. You’ll never blow an amp that never gets used. That’s not the point of the job. The point is to come at it with a particular attitude and a sense of pride for the craft. If you’ve ever seen Lyle Lovett in concert, you’ve noticed that his whole band wears suits and ties. Not jackets and slacks. Not shirts and ties. Suits. But here’s the thing: so do his roadies. I saw a guitar tech on stage before one of his gigs in Boone, North Carolina, and the tech was wearing a double breasted dark number with a subtle tie. Normally those guys look homeless. Not on Brother Lyle’s watch.

So what’s the benefit? If I suit up and show up, what difference does it make? Some of that is hard to tell because, again, it’s more apparent in its absence than its presence. As a person with an ego, I can find that challenging. At the same time, I do see it showing up in the system. I sense people feeling the presence of the One from whom all vibes do flow. I see them expressing their own gifts, metaphorically or literally shaking their asses. And to paraphrase Stereophile’s Corey Greenberg, if you can’t shake your ass, your system sucks.