Singer-songwriter Nerida Cuddy has been discovering what it means to get to the end of yourself and there find God.
The busy mother of three living in a missional community in western NSW was forced to drop everything in January after she fell sick with Ross River Fever.
No more teaching primary school music or high school scripture. No more mentoring of young rural women. No more running around like a sheepdog herding her kids from one activity to the next.
All she had energy for during the next few months was to spend time with her family, pray for her fast-growing children, aged 7, 9, and 11, and try to love, understand and disciple them better.
“I think when God brings me ‘to the end of myself’ in any area of life, I come to a deeper place of surrendering it to his control, because I finally accept that I don’t have the resources in myself,” says Nerida, who has just released her fourth album, Prayers for a Broken Journey.
“You know how Paul said he ‘puts no confidence in the flesh’ – well, I can’t make myself not have confidence in myself, my confidence needs to be lost, through brokenness, being humbled, seeing my need of God. Once that over-the-top sense of responsibility and power and control gets broken, there’s so much more room for God to lead and help me.”
Nerida, who has been working with Cornerstone Community for about 20 years, felt led by God during this time of sickness to create an album for those who are “poor in spirit”.
It is aimed at Christians or seekers who are suffering and need encouragement to hope, comfort to get through and strength to surrender to and trust in the goodness of God.
For example, the song called Weakness suggests that meekness is no mild thing but a choice to surrender to God and trust that he is able to work to bring all things together for good.
Since 2000, Nerida has released three albums of her lyrical songs aimed at being thought-provoking for secular audiences, but spent about ten years waiting for God to tell her whether he wanted her to record a Christian album or not.
“I didn’t need to make another album. I just knew that if God wanted me to do it I was ready,” she tells Eternity.
“So when I got sick and dropped all the other busy things, I just felt that he was saying, ‘OK, it’s time to work on this album now.’
“The songs are really about the faithfulness and reliability of God, the need for Christians to really depend on God, not just talk about depending on him. He’s worthy of that surrender and trust.”
Prayers for a Broken Journey is a beautiful album of biblically based musical insights Nerida has gained through her life and spiritual growth. As well as her haunting vocals and guitar accompaniment, the multi-layered acoustic soundtrack features Melbourne musicians Liz Frencham on backing vocals and double bass and Dave Gleeson on violin, native American flute and duduk (Armenian flute).
Nerida’s previous album, Crazy Beautiful World, was produced at the same time as her third child in 2008. Journal, released in 2003, was a collection of reflective songs exploring the experience of grief and loss.
Nerida has been bereaved three times in her life. The first was the shocking, sudden death of her father when she was doing her HSC in Year 12. Then her first real boyfriend went back to live in Africa, and died the following year.
“I was angry with God and pretty disappointed with life and I felt I was living on the set of Days of Our Lives for a while,” she says.
It was only years later while visiting her boyfriend’s family in Zimbabwe and feeling anew all the grief and disappointment that she came to a point of surrender to God.
“I decided not to fight God any more about it and just surrender to him. I also picked up a book over there that belonged to my boyfriend called Grace Works by Dudley Hall. It just really spoke to me where I was about the love of gracious God.
“On the plane home I wrote that from now on the love and goodness of God were going to be the bottom line for me in life and I came back and I knew that things were very different and since then there has been no more distrust of God’s love and goodness. So even though it was a hard and emotional trip it was a real watershed spiritually for me.”
It was during Nerida’s third time of loss after her stepfather died from cancer that she wrote many of the songs on the Journal album.
“That album in particular has been really useful, not just for me,” she says. “Someone told me recently that she bought it several years ago and really appreciated it herself and had given it to friends.
“Australians are so private about their emotional and spiritual lives generally that this CD can just sit in their house in the quiet with them.
“For me it’s a great blessing too because the day after my dad died we read 2 Corinthians about the God of all comfort. And I just feel like it’s tangible evidence that God is faithful to that – the comfort that I received and can pass on to others.”
Nerida, the youngest of five siblings, was brought up in Sydney by parents who were working with Life Ministries.
“It was a loving and supportive family, and my parents weren’t perfect but did model real Christianity,” she says.
Nerida’s father was a friend of the founder of Cornerstone Community, an Australian training and mission movement that began on a cotton farm in outback NSW in 1978.
Students spend the first year of a two-year course studying, working and living at one of the Cornerstone centres in regional towns. They spend the subsequent year as part of a smaller self-supporting mission team in an Australian town.
Nerida was impressed by the change in her brother when he came home after doing the two year-course.
“The change in his character was so remarkable I realised I needed to do that too. He was a lot more consistent, the same person at home and out. Before he was very popular with other people but at home he was sometimes a bit cranky,” she says.
“I had a lot of doubts about whether God even existed and he just came home sounding a lot more settled in himself as to what he believed and who he was.
“I went to Cornerstone at Bourke for two years then came back to Sydney to do four years of uni.
“Cornerstone was just a place where I could ask a lot of the hard questions and meet enough people who at that age of 17 and 18 impressed me enough to be able to keep remembering them when I went to university for four years and had 24,000 people disagreeing with me.”
After graduating with an English teaching degree, Nerida went to train as a lecturer at Cornerstone in Broken Hill in far-west NSW.
“For those three years when I was training for staff I was mentored by a couple who helped me to think through a lot of my repressed grief and just to work through a lot of stuff in the way that I thought about God and life and myself,” she recalls.
“Those three years I really thank God for. The first two years helped me to stay
believing that there was a God and then those other three years helped me to realise that God was good and trust that.”
Nerida had started writing songs in Bourke after the loss of her father and her songwriting really took off during her time in Broken Hill, when she was grieving the death of her boyfriend.
“I look back now and I find it interesting that during the two major griefs in my life I was living out in far-west NSW,” she says.
“I particularly love that sense of space and beauty and vivid colours and just the stillness of the landscape. I feel like God used that in my life to just hold me while I was inside torn apart. And I was surrounded by great people who were understanding and embracing me as I am and letting me voice those questions that Christians can be afraid to voice.”
Nerida met her husband Chris Cuddy at Cornerstone, and they taught together at the Cornerstone centre at Canowindra for seven years before moving into town and living in a missional community.
She says she suffered from a two-year writer’s block after the move to Canowindra and “when we went out to Broken Hill I wrote four songs in one day … It really is a special place for me.”
She says that the huge lesson of her life has been to stop trying to fix her failings and weaknesses but to accept them.
“I’ve always seen my own weakness as a parent, but I guess I’m realising that God knows all about those weaknesses and instead of trying to fix my kids I could put that energy into praying for them and loving them,” she says.
“That’s how I’ve been in other areas of life too, like mentoring, and each time God has just said, ‘Great, you’ve finally got to the end of yourself, now we can start walking together on this.’
“So instead of running from those obvious failures and failings I’ve learned to turn and say ‘yes, that’s me; it’s not who I wish I was but, Lord, if you’ll be with me then we’ll walk forward together.’ Instead of me trying to do some gymnastics to change myself into someone I’m not so that I’m good enough to do it with God.
“I’m sure my kids would tell you I’ve got a long way to go but I feel when I came to that end-of-myself point recently that it was a really good place to be.”
Prayers for a Broken Journey is being distributed to Christian bookshops via The Wandering Bookseller.