My Whole Heart

'Piano Keys' photo (c) 2008, Victoria Henderson - license:

Last Tuesday, Ed Cyzewski wrote a post about the worst job in ministry, that of the worship leader.

I mostly sat there crying while I read it. Because, yeah. The thing that made me most want to leave Christianity wasn’t my husband coming out as an atheist. It wasn’t wrestling through the issue of homosexuality.

It was having my musical gifts rejected.

As a music major in college, I was accustomed to dealing with critiques. You learn to accept constructive feedback on technique. You learn what pieces best show off your strengths while allowing you to learn more about the craft of performing. If you’re lucky, you learn the difference between a juried piece and something that you’re just playing for fun. You live and breathe music, and it pays off when that scary music theory professor cries at your recital.

But nothing could prepare me for my musical passion bringing my entire faith into question.

The one place where I feel completely myself is behind piano keys. Whatever happens when I’m in that space is as authentically “me” as one gets. There might be times when I fake it, but never when I play. In those times, my emotions are laid bare. Good or bad, confident or tentative, intricate or simple, whatever I play will be true.

So when the sincerity of my faith was questioned because of my playing, I completely lost my bearings. Could I have been lying to myself? Was I using that time to bring praise to me rather than to God? Had I made playing an idol?

For a season, I stopped playing. If I could be this wrong about myself, how could I be sure about God? I cried through nearly every worship set for six solid months.  I cried because I missed playing so much and surely that was indicative that the pastor must have been right – I was substituting music for God and worshiping that instead.

Eventually I got up the courage to start playing again. And I realized that the pastor was wrong.

Music is why I believe in God.

I thought that was a bad thing. I was supposed to have loftier reasons for belief. I should be convinced by this piece of theological evidence or that bit of apologetic truth. Emotions aren’t supposed to have any play in why I believe.

But the truth is, for me they do. I have been convinced of the need for a relationship with Jesus, and relationships are clothed in emotions. They extend beyond emotions to be sure, but the emotional component is key. The emotional connections that I feel with people are what convince me that our relationships have value.

When I play, I experience that connection.  I experience it with the people who I’m playing for. I experience it more deeply with the people who I’m playing with. And I experience it the most profoundly with the One who gave me the gift in the first place.

We are not all wired the same way. We have different gifts and abilities. We have different ways that we experience connection.

Don’t be afraid to examine criticism of the way that you connect with God. Sometimes there are things that get in the way of that relationship that we aren’t able to easily recognize.

But after you’ve examined, enjoy that place of connection with your whole heart, because it is where you will find God.

  • Kerry Miller-Whalen

    Alise – this post makes me want to cry, for the horrible mindgames we play on each other, in the name of religion.  How did we reach a place where people are afraid to be themselves??  
    I find God in the Creative, too… music (I sing) and also in writing…  somehow meaning comes together for me when I do these things – & God is right there in the middle of all that.
    Thanks for posting!
    xx  Kerry

    • Alise Wright

      Thanks Kerry! I often feel like creative things are attacked more in the church, but particularly music. We want our pastors to give inspired, heart-felt sermons, but we don’t assume that when they do so, it’s because they want to bring glory to themselves because of their awesome speaking abilities. But if a musician does the same, it’s problematic. Makes me crazy. 

  • Ed_Cyzewski

    I’ve been waiting for this post, and I’m so glad you wrote it. What a beautiful testimony about the way you’ve met with God through music. There is real power in that. I’ve had to keep learning that God doesn’t give us gifts and passions only to deny them. That may be one of the most harmful aspects of conservative Christianity.

    • Alise Wright

      I agree – we have completely perverted the BEAUTY of the parable of the talents. Why on earth we encourage people to be like the servant who buries his gift is beyond me. That we teach that it’s the way it should be (sometimes directly, but REGULARLY with our actions), it is just an unbelievably twisted gospel. I’ve been away from that for some time now, but it’s still a tender spot for me.

      What’s funny is that I don’t see it only in conservative Christianity, but also in the emergent church. Lots (!!!) of “it’s just a big show” kind of language out there. I know that it’s not intended to be hurtful, but dang. It definitely is.

      • Ed_Cyzewski

        I don’t need to know who said what, but I would love it if you wrote a follow up post on the ways you’ve seen this talent burying. That’s a HUGE issue for a lot of folks, especially artists. A designer from my church wrote something for the Taking Root series at my blog, and he’s really appreciated having a place to share his artistic talents. 

        Speaking of which, have you read the graphic novel Blankets? All of the designers in my church rave about it. It’s pretty epic. I read it in one night, staying up until 2 am!  Sort of touches on these ideas of the church asking folks to bury talents.

        • Alise Wright

          I have not read that. Honestly, I know so little about graphic novels that I feel kind of overwhelmed. But on your recommendation, I will be sure to check it out. Thanks!

  • Heretic Husband

    The whole “OMG you are bringing praise to yourself not God!” argument makes me want to scream.  Of COURSE you’re bringing praise to yourself.  No one goes to see a talented musician without saying “hey, they’re pretty talented!”.  If God created us, doesn’t praising his creation bring praise to him?  Or is God so small that he can be outshone by anyone with a piano and some sheet music?

    Also, this argument reminds me of the modesty debate.  Just as women are held responsible for causing men to “stumble”, worship leaders are held responsible for the thoughts of the people listening to them.  

    • Kat Walker

      SO TRUE.  I have to deal with the same nonsense as a Christian artist (animator, specifically).  Our intentions are always called into question and our work is always scrutinized, but you won’t see churches do the same for those members in other careers.  As if being an artist means you’re 30% more likely to sin or something (although if your church has a vocal minority who thinks the media is run by freemasons trying to brainwash us with satanic propaganda, I guess I can see why). 

      Any Christian should know that God is the ultimate artist and every talent is a gift from Him.  It should go without saying that every time we see something beautiful, it is a small reflection of God (even if it wasn’t intended to be). 

      Call me a cynic, but most creative church people who say things like “give glory to God, not to me” are just putting on a front.  To me, it always sounds like “Yes, I am clearly gifted, but look how humble and devout I am too!  Love me more!”  

      The audience should be praising God anyway – if they give “too much” praise to the artist, then that’s their problem.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the artist is being arrogant, sheesh.

      Besides, it’s not as though He bestows free gifts without any effort – artists train for years to master their respective crafts.  Complimenting a person’s hard work doesn’t diminish God’s role at all.  If anything, thanks to their hard work they are doing a better job of representing God!

    • Alise Wright

      Yup. I can maybe understand that people outside of the church might not see God, but certainly those looking for him should spot him. Certainly I’m not sure how God is more glorified if people give less of themselves.

  • Kelly J Youngblood

    Wow.  My post just this morning was about the role of music as I am looking for a church.  We want music that we like, but then I question whether or not we are looking at music in the right way; if we are worshiping the music and not God.  Even though I have about zero musical ability and often wish I had some, I still connect to God through certain songs.  Thanks for this post…it’ll give me something to think about on this topic!

    • Alise Wright

      Yeah, for a long time I thought that was a bad reason to like a church. But if that’s where you meet God, I think that’s okay. I know that some don’t connect the same way, and that’s also okay. But I’m getting tired of being told that liking well-done arts is some kind of moral deficit on my part.

  • Ellen

    In a way, I feel the same way about writing. In my writing is where I connect most deeply to God. In some ways, writing is a spiritual practice–my most consistent one, in fact (I am working on a blog post on this very topic). And I know that sometimes my writing can interfere with a healthy spiritual life (not to mention a healthy emotional life), in that I can dwell too much on criticism or put too much stock in praise. But I find God in writing in spite of all that. Thanks for this perspective.

    • Alise Wright

      Absolutely. I think we need to exercise some caution when we meet God through our art, but I don’t think we should feel shame for finding God there. When we embrace that, I think we run less risk of mixing up the two.

  • Leanne Shirtliffe

    Oh, this reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant short story, “Harrison Bergeron” a near-future look at a society where equality is taken way too far and no one is allowed to be gifted. 

    Your writing is also brilliant, Alise. And it’s made me ask myself the question: where am I most authentically me? I don’t have an answer yet.

    • Alise Wright

      I have shamefully little knowledge of Vonnegut. I just think of Syndrome in The Incredibles. Since that was his deal – make everyone super so no one is. 

      I think I’m getting MORE naked in my writing, but it’s still a little bashful for me. But get me playing the piano & the process is much less painful. I do think it’s a question that’s worth examining, though.

  • pastordt

    This is FABULOUS. But I am so sorry for the painful way in which this truth was affirmed in your life. Let me guess – a mega-church pastor with an ego to match, maybe he wasn’t sure he ‘liked’ you for whatever reason, so he couched his critique in churchy-sounding language to get you to step down. 


    Musicians who are in touch with their craft are directly in touch with God. Just like artists, writers, skilled artisans of all kinds. This is how they’re wired, this is how God speaks loudest in their lives. Those who are earnestly seeking to know more of God are not idolizing their art – they are worshipping God through it, continually praising God for how they’ve been made, thankful for the power of their craft to inform their understanding of the nature of God. 

    What a jerk. Maybe he was just plain jealous! 

    Thanks for these encouraging words to all of us who seek to discover and understand more of God through our right brains as well as our left. Even those of us with more limited talent than you clearly possess are blessed by the truths you write about here.

    • Alise Wright

      Actually, this happened at a smaller church (~150 adults). I found healing in the mega-church. Life is weird. ;-D

      I mostly feel like I need to work these things out for my kids, because I’ve got a couple of extremely creative children coming up behind me and I don’t want them to have to figure this junk out for themselves. 

      Thank you for your kind words & support!

      • pastordt

        Well, that will teach me to assume! I’m actually really glad to hear something good about a mega-church experience. It’s a good reminder NEVER to generalize. :>)

  • Rachel

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, ever since I stumbled upon a post about your husband coming out as an atheist.  My partner also came out as an atheist about 8 years ago and the worst part of it is the feeling of aloneness.  I don’t know anyone else in our position and often feel misunderstood as a couple by other Christians who have believing partners or even Christians who married partners who never shared their faith.  Reading your blog has helped me realize we’re not alone in this.  So thanks for that.  And also, thanks for this beautiful post.  It is full of truth and very touching.  I’m so glad you found your way back to an expression of worship that is true to who God made you to be.  

    • Alise Wright

      There is definitely something different about a change in faith from those who were always different faiths, but I’m thankful for all who participate in the interfaith dialogue, regardless of their experience. It’s all (mostly) helpful.

      Thank you for stopping by – feel free to say hi any time!

  • Dan McM


    You mentioned in the past that you had to step down from music ministry and how much you hated that…. I had guessed that it was because the pastor thought you were too liberal with your theology or something along those lines (I’ve worried about that sort of thing myself, and I’m more conservative than you.) Guess I was wrong on that assumption, huh? 

    I totally get the idea of connecting to God through worship, as it was during times of worship when I was a ‘baby Christian’ in college where God convinced me that, yes, he did really love me. And it was also during that time that I first felt called to help lead worship myself (I was learning guitar at the time) – if God was able to touch my heart through music, wouldn’t it be cool to help others get to that place too?

    I am aghast that they had you step down because your performance was too good? Seriously? That’s nuts to me. Someone would have to be an arrogant prima dona with their heart completely in the wrong place for me to say, ‘uh, no thanks’, and I can’t imagine you being like that. 

    I do remember a time where a good friend of mine intimidated some of the other musicians on our team with his over the top playing, and when I mentioned it to him, he said “If they’re afraid to run with the big dogs, tell ‘em to hide under the porch.”  That kind of attitude, I can see a pastor saying “no thanks” to, but that’s not you.

    To me, the key issue is, where is your heart when you’re playing? We all have a tendency to slip into ‘performance mode’ occasionally, and we all like to get an ‘atta boy’ now and then (did I just quote Nicole Nordeman?), but that’s because we’re human. If our primary purpose in doing worship music is to a) enter in to worship God ourselves, and b) help lead others into God’s presence, then the technical side of the music really becomes an afterthought. Telling an artist to put a lid on their creativity just doesn’t make any sense in that case — if we’re being creative, we are acting as much “in His image” as anything else.

    Good post, Alise. Sorry you had to endure crap like that.   


    • Alise Wright

      I don’t know that it was that I was “too good,” but I was not okay was half-hearted efforts in playing. I think that we should give our best. Which isn’t to say that everyone has to be amazing, but simply that everyone has to give their best. But this was called a “spirit of performance” and when I disagreed, I was called unsubmissive and asked to step down. 

      And I agree with you. It seems that creativity is a hallmark of God. Not sure why you’d ask someone to not do that.

  • Karen Haring

    Love this! As someone who connects to God so much through music, I appreciate what you are saying. And as a fellow musician, I’m so glad you are continuing to use your gifts! And thank you for being so authentic.

    As you and I have discussed- I think I am most authentically me when I am talking one on one with my friends. And by the way- there is a strong musical component to my friendships, as I often share songs with my friends. My friends have helped me learn what it means to be authentic.

    • Alise Wright

      The whole “musical component” part of my friendships is pretty critical. I can’t think of a single close friend where music hasn’t played a role. They just go together.

  • bekka

    I think I mentioned briefly to you once before that Music is my soul-language.

    I once joked with my husband that if mathematics is the universal language, then music is the language of heaven.

    And really, God does ask that we make a joyful noise in praise, so perhaps I’m not that far off.

    I firmly believe in finding that place where your soul feels most connected.  For my husband, it’s dishing out food for a neighbour at a soup kitchen.  Or perhaps fitting a piece of rebar or structural steel just so.

    But music has always spoken to me, and you can probably tell because even though most people don’t hear me sing outside of a worship service, my daughter sings all day long.  And when she manages to sneak my phone away, I get recorded proof of her singing as she has discovered the handy “Voice Memo” app.  Maybe I should send it off as a demo somewhere…  Nah, three is too young for a singing career ;)

    • Alise Wright

      I think there is real joy to be found in knowing what makes you feel the most YOU. Denying that is just painful. I’m glad that your daughter is finding that place at such a young age!

  • Stephanie Spencer

    Your final sentences, “Don’t be afraid to examine criticism of the way that you connect with
    God. Sometimes there are things that get in the way of that
    relationship that we aren’t able to easily recognize.
    But after you’ve examined, enjoy that place of connection with your whole heart, because it is where you will find God.” Beautiful. Profound. True.

    Thank you for sharing your heart. So much truth here.

  • Chad Jones

    This is fantastic! Let’s say that–for the sake of argument–God made you “musical” in the same way He made Eric Liddell (Chariots of Fire) fast. Two things come to mind: denying your gift dishonors He Who gave it, and when you play, you feel His pleasure. Because it’s what He made you to do. <–the question then becomes why those of us in the church are afraid to embrace this? Makes no sense…

    Anyway, I'm not sure of my own place, but I think it involves some kind of writing.

    • Dan McM

      Hit the nail on the head with that comparison (Liddell), Chad. That’s exactly right — music is what God made Alise (and me, and others) to do.

  • RawFaith

    I always loved music as a kid. I began a relationship with Jesus and the guitar at almost the same time. I was in 7th grade. I was so shut down emotionally that it was really hard for me to communicate about anything that was going on in my life. Almost immediately the music touched something deep inside me. Someone said “he who plays prays twice,” and I think it’s true. I was able to communicate what I was feeling through my playing much better than I could with words.

    Through my turbulent teen years I was able to go in my room and pour out my anger and hurt and pain through my playing. I have no doubt it helped keep me sane and alive. For me too its always been a big part of my faith. 

    I’ve experienced a similar bias against musicians in the evangelical subculture. In the “non-denominational” denomination I used to be a part of there was great value placed on the pastors and what they said, and guest pastors. But the attitude about musicians was that they didn’t want them to get “prideful” and that they should be blessed to be able to come and minister for free, and that they shouldn’t be paid too much because they didn’t want them to get big heads etc.  These days I just ignore all that and go about my business. It’s still a wonder to me that I can sit down and pour out my real heart while I play, and music still to me is about communing with God. I’m so thankful for that gift. 

  • TorConstantino

     This was an awesome post Alise! I especially love the line, “…I have been convinced of the need for a relationship with Jesus, and relationships are clothed in emotions….” that is a wonderfully powerful statement!

  • Jlunardo

    Oh sweet, lovely Alise…the sincerity of your faith is very clear.  So sorry you were told otherwise. God bless your gift, and God bless you as you use it to glorify Him.

  • Kristin T. (@kt_writes)

    I paused and just sat with this sentence, as soon as I read it: “The one place where I feel completely myself is behind piano keys.” Even though I didn’t know exactly where you were going with your post at that point, I knew this: The activity/place/gift that makes you feel most fully who you were created to be is most definitely *from* God, and is a key way to connect *with* God and others. I’m so glad you came to that same conclusion, but so sorry you had to be hurt in the process.

  • Pingback: Don’t Manipulate Me

  • Pingback: Pumpkin Cake