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Jeremy Zeyl on Singing the Heidelberg Catechism

Jeremy Zeyl is an award-winning singer-songwriter and the director of worship at Talbot Street Christian Reformed Church in London, Ontario.

Jeremy Zeyl has served as the songwriter and leader of the internationally acclaimed folk vocal trio Isobelle Gunn. In this edited interview, based on a phone conversation in June 2014, he talks about his ongoing project—setting the words of the Heidelberg Catechism to modern music for corporate worship and congregational singing.

What sparked your love for the Heidelberg Catechism?

I was born and raised in the Christian Reformed Church in Canada, so in high school I had catechism classes at church—though, to be perfectly honest, I slept through most of it. After I attended university and was living on my own, I heard Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 1 read at a church service. Those words about “my only comfort in life and in death” leapt out at me and inspired me to write the song “Not My Own.” I was 21 then. I’m 32 now. If you would have told me then that I’d write an album based on the Heidelberg, I’d have laughed at you.

So what changed?

My wife, Lara Schat-Zeyl, and sister, Leanna Zeyl, and I toured internationally for years as the folk trio Isobelle Gunn. We played in churches, festivals and coffeehouses and would often sing “Not My Own.” After one concert, a grade 12 student asked us what inspired that song, so Lara quoted from Q & A 1. The student was shocked and visibly moved. He attended a Christian high school and had heard of the Heidelberg Catechism but didn’t know any specifics.

A few years ago, a concert organizer asked me to write more songs from the catechism. I read it again as an adult, and songs started leaping out of me. We received a grant from the Reid Trust, which supports Reformed and Presbyterian theological education in Canada, to create a CD of songs and liturgical passages for congregations.

People often hear Q & A 1. But what other parts do you want people to know?

The first question and answer is a cornerstone that speaks to our comfort, but the confession is vast. The writers connect the physical to the spiritual. They articulate language in a beautiful and poetic way that has deepened my understanding and faith. They often use this phrasing: as surely this, so certainly that. Q & A 69 says, “As surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly his blood and Spirit wash away the impurity of my soul.” I quoted that directly in “The Love of Jesus,” which I sang when our daughter, Kiara, was baptized in September 2013. Many churches are singing that at baptisms now.

How closely do your songs follow the catechism’s text?

I had to pray a lot about that. As a writer, you want a voice, but my job was to give the catechism a voice. That was a major shift for me. Even though writing from the catechism sounds restricting, it was freeing, because the truth was already there. I just had to bring it out through the Spirit’s help. I spent nine months writing, studying and praying the Heidelberg Catechism.

The CD comes with a booklet that gives all the text and catechism and biblical references for each song. Text in red is taken directly from the Heidelberg, and text in blue is what I’ve added to make it singable. Two pastors, Kelly Sibthorpe and Willemina Zwart, were our theological supervisors to make sure that what Lara and I wrote reflected what the catechism was saying.

Who are your musical influences?

Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Cat Stevens….But I grew up singing hymns in church, and those melodies are in my soul. I’ve been classically trained since age four. And I love gospel, jazz, blues, funk and R&B grooves. I’ve also been inspired by The Psalm Project, a group from the Netherlands that’s giving fresh breath to ancient psalms.

What do you do differently when you write a song for congregational singing instead of for performance?

Melodically, it’s very different to write for congregations. I have to be mindful of phrasing so the congregation can sing well together. Yet the text has its own rhythm, and I have to fit that to a tune. For “You Bring Us Joy,” where the catechism talks about Jesus Christ as “he,” I changed it to “you,” which is better for congregational singing. I’ll be the first to admit that some songs on the first Heidelberg CD are more for performance. “Not Go Down” is rhythmically difficult, though some congregations can sing the chorus. “He Has Set Us Free” is the first one I teach wherever I go. “Always (My Trust in You),” “My Only Comfort,” “The Love of Jesus” and “This Is My Body” are easy for congregations to sing.

How are churches responding to your Heidelberg songs?

Some churches don’t want me to visit, because there’s a preconceived notion that songs based on the catechism will be old and boring. And some churches will invite me because it’s the catechism, without listening to the music. The catechism has a depth and richness that needs to be brought to Christians beyond the Reformed tradition. It was written over 450 years ago to bridge gaps, not to divide people. Our second CD won’t be so clearly identified with the Heidelberg, because I want to remove any barriers created by unfamiliar references to it.

Anything else you want to say?

Texts get learned in a different way through singing. Music has an intrinsic power for faith formation. Our son Isaiah is five. It’s a great joy to hear him singing all the songs from the first CD, because it means he knows what we believe and is learning the theology.

I’ve written 12 more songs from the catechism, and we’re working on getting funding to produce a second CD. After writing and teaching the first CD, I have firsthand evidence of what works well or doesn’t. The second CD will be more singable.

Jeremy Zeyl and his band will present a workshop and lead during worship at the 2015 Calvin Symposium on Worship. Buy the CD Heidelberg: Songs from the Catechism, which comes with liturgical passages and PDFs of lead sheets with lyrics and chords for all songs.