Embracing My Savior
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Niddrie Community Church and director of 20Schemes. Mez is the author of numerous books, including The Creaking on the Stairs: Finding Faith in God Through Childhood Abuse (Christian Focus) and Is There Anybody Out There?: A Journey from Despair to Hope (Christia...more
You won’t hear trite Christian answers listening to Scottish pastor Mez McConnell. His personal story of coming to Christ is too painful for that. Mez shares the rest of his story.
Embracing My Savior
Bob: Mez McConnell grew up in Scotland. He was physically abused by his stepmother regularly. He joined a gang early—was in and out of trouble with the law throughout his teen years—and eventually wound up in prison. That’s where Mez came to faith in Christ and decided he wanted to be a pastor.
Mez: The first year of Bible college was a bit wild. I was nine months out of maximum security and was in seminary—you can imagine—and I wasn’t used to debate. If you disagreed with someone, whoever slaps the other person the hardest would win; so you know, it was/it was an interesting time.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, October 6th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I’m Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Mez McConnell joins us, again, today to talk about his journey from juvenile delinquency to being a church planter. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. One of my favorite passages of Scripture—one I come back to over and over again—is the passage from the Book of Isaiah, where the prophet says that the ministry of Messiah is a ministry that will bring beauty from ashes. Because I think of what God has come to do in our lives—all of us—no matter how pristine your background may look, there are ashes in all of our lives; right?
Dave: Oh, yes!
Bob: There is dysfunction; there is a mess that God has to come in and address.
This week, we’ve been hearing a story from a guy, who had a messier-than-normal background—the kind of background that if someone shared, “This is my life,”—you would think, “Well, there is so much damage here; that if you can just heal from your wounds, that would be remarkable.”
Dave: Yes; but to be able to be healed and recover and then be used by God to help others—I mean, if you’ve ever thought, “I’m too far from God; there is no hope for me,” listen today.
Ann: When I read this book, what I told Dave was, “This is one of the most horrific stories that I’ve ever heard and one of the most miraculous, redeeming stories.”
Bob: Mez McConnell is the guy we’re going to hear from today. Mez is one of the pastors at Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the founder of a ministry called 20schemes. We think of schemes of being plans that we cook up. No; a scheme in Scotland is an area of government housing, often lower socio-economic status there. There are 20 areas that this ministry has targeted throughout Scotland to try to plant churches in some of the hardest places in Scotland.
Mez has been to Bible college and to seminary, but his background—he was abused as a child by a stepmother; he had a dad, who was not there to protect him as he should—and Mez wound up getting involved in gangs, doing drugs, being arrested for burglary and drug-related offenses. We’ve already heard some of his story this week, but we’re going to pick up our conversation with him at a point where his street life had begun to catch up with him.
Bob: What landed you in maximum security prison?
Mez: Serious assault on two men—I stabbed a couple of guys—and a robbery from a bank got me 15 months in maximum security jail.
Bob: Did that harden you; or did that begin to cause you to pull back and go, “Wait; I’ve got to reevaluate my life”?
Mez: I mean, I had been looking to reevaluate my life anyway, if I’m honest. I had been on the streets now since about 16/17—you know?—bumming about. My life was going nowhere fast, and I was like—a lot of my friends were dying/a couple were murdered—I was wondering, “What’s going on? What am I doing with myself?”
I was always reading something; I was always thinking, “There is something more to life than this, but I don’t know if I can be bothered with it.” Then, when I got into max secure—that was 23-and-a-half hours a day in a cell—as soon as I knew there was a library in the prison, I’m like, “Just give me a lot of books.” Did my jail time easy—but you had to be tough to survive—I did a few brutal things to survive.
Ann: You said that you didn’t mean to turn to God. What did you mean by that?
Mez: That’s right. I wasn’t looking for God in any sense. I was looking for me, and I was looking for some sort of hope—something bigger than what was going on/bigger than me. Christians were about now and then. I remember, in jail, walking down a corridor with some guys, chatting, and seeing this poster on the wall that was just a picture of a guy standing in a dark room, with a little ray of light shooting in from the side. It just basically said, “Light is coming to the world, and the darkness cannot put it out.”
I remember being completely arrested, by that photo/of thinking, “What does that mean?” But I was thinking, “I’m that guy stuck in a dark place here; what does that mean?” That sort of got me thinking about spiritual things.
Bob: Wow; how did thinking about spiritual things morph into first hearing or understanding the gospel?
Mez: Well, I heard the gospel before I went to jail. I was dealing some drugs outside what we would call a community center. And then these Christians drove up—I didn’t know they were Christians at the time—they drove up and jumped out and asking if we wanted a game of football/soccer. I’m very suspicious; I’m like, “These guys must be the police or something,”—right?—“No normal people do this.” Anyway, we got a free game of football out of it—soccer.
At half time, these guys start talking about Jesus, and sin, and hell; and I’m like, “Who the heck are these idiots?!” [Laughter] So the first time I met Christians, I was actually arrested. I went outside; we smashed their cars up, and the police came. I’m thinking, “We won’t see these morons again”; but the next week, they came back. They kept coming.
Even though I was front-ending it with the boy, saying, “This is all BS,” I was listening. They were saying things like, “Have you ever wondered about life and death?” I’m thinking, “I wonder about it all the time.” “Have you ever wondered about what the meaning of life is?” I’m thinking, “I wonder about it all the time.” “Have you ever thought about hope? What does hope mean, and meaning?” I’m thinking, “I wonder about it all the time”; but I didn’t say anything to my pals. I sat there, having a dilemma inside me, thinking, “I have a rap now”; but at the same time, these guys are asking questions that preoccupy me almost all the time.
That happened over a period of two or three years; and then, when I got sent to jail, two of those boys—those Christian boys—actually came to visit me part way through my sentence. Like they’d begin—throughout the process of my sentence, I was thinking more and more about—particularly about Jesus, because Jesus seemed like the sort of guy I quite like—He stuck it to the man/to the authorities.
I’d had a picture of Jesus, growing up, who was all rules and regs/[regulations] and “Follow the system.” And then the Jesus that I was hearing about, and picking bits and bobs, sounded edgier than that. I very interested to find out more about Him.
Bob: So how did that journey continue for you?
Mez: Well, I was due for parole for my sentence, and I didn’t have an address. I’d been homeless for almost six years at that point. These Christians guys said, “Why don’t you come and live at my house with me?” It was there I found a book called Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Have you ever seen that?
Dave: Oh, yes.
Mez: That thing is bigger than me. What the Lord used to save me was the Book of Romans, actually. That’s how I was converted. I grew up with counselors/social workers—I grew up with all sorts of people—telling me, “Look; at heart, you’re a good boy. You just got a bad break in life. If you’d been born into a nice, middle-class family, you’d be a nice, middle-class boy; but you’re only a product of the cards that life has dealt you/your environment.”
I’m reading the Book of Romans, where Paul—I’ll paraphrase—is basically, saying, “You had a terrible childhood; you’re still a sinner; you need to take responsibility for your sin.” I did not like that, but that was the truth of the Bible. That’s what led to my conversion; it’s like, “You know what? Actually, it’s true. I am a sinner. Yes; terrible, horrible, disgusting things have happened to me, but I’m still a sinner before a holy God.”
Over a process of a few months, I gave my life to Christ. I didn’t just come to Jesus and go, “Woohoo! Thank You, God; all is forgiven. Don’t let my past bother You anymore.” I had a lot of questions. Coming to that realization was one of the most painful processes in my life. I had to eat a lot of humble pie; you know? That’s a difficult thing to just put everything that happened to me to one side and admit, “Right; we’ll come back to that; but at heart, yes, I am a rebel.
Mez: “Yes; I’m a sinner. I’ve hurt people. I’ve rebelled against the Lord.”
People have, absolutely, one million percent hurt me.
Bob: How did you process the goodness of God with what you had experienced, growing up?
Mez: I’m still processing it, and I have two degrees and 20 years in the ministry. Let me be very clear about that. Again, as I say in the book, it is a process; it’s not clean: “Do I think God is good?”—yes. “Do I think that God is absolutely sovereign over everything, even over my abuse?”—yes. “Am I comfortable or happy about that?”—sometimes no, I’m not,—
Mez: —because I don’t understand it fully.
This is where faith comes in; because faith—not just in Jesus; is it?—particularly for those of us, who have been abused—faith in Jesus is almost the easy thing. It’s the faith in the rest of the character of God that we’ve got to take on in His Word that we won’t get answers now.
We may get some—we may find some peace—but ultimately, I don’t know why people torture children. I do not know how in any way that brings honor or glory to anyone.
Bob: For some people, that reality has been enough to cause them to abandon what faith they’ve had.
Mez: I can appreciate that 100 percent; yes.
Bob: How can you cling to what you do believe rather than saying, “If this is who God is, I can’t bow a knee to Him”?
Mez: In many ways, my non-Christian environments helped me process it better. What I mean by that was—I was pretty much at existential nihilist: “There is no meaning. There is nothing. It’s all a waste of time.” It’s: “Why study?” “Why go to school?” “Why behave yourself?” “Why do anything?”—“We live; we struggle; we get trampled on; and we die.”
Then I came to—concerning about God and the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ—I had two choices: I could continue running my nihilistic, “There is no point to anything; and therefore, no point to my suffering/no meaning behind it; boo-hoo, get over it.” Whereas, actually, finding Christ—finding hope in Christ/finding meaning, even struggling with these questions—has, in a strange providence of God, given me comfort to know, “My suffering only has meaning because of God’s existence; therefore, even if I don’t fully understand it, I cling to it.”
What’s interesting is I questioned God more, coming to faith, than—if you know what I mean “before”—I didn’t just come to Jesus and go, “Well, that’s it; I accept everything now.” I was questioning everything. I was reading the Bible voraciously. I grew pretty quickly. Within nine months, I was at seminary through a strange process of weird providences. I actually ended up in seminary a year earlier than I was supposed to be there.
The first year of Bible college was a bit wild. I was nine months out of maximum security and was in seminar—so you can imagine—and I wasn’t used to debate. If you disagreed with someone, whoever slaps the other person the hardest would win; so, you know, It was an interesting time.
Bob: I have to ask about how you began to process the whole idea of marriage and family, given what you had grown up with.
Mez: That’s a great question—because I have great Christian friends. The guys who led me to the Lord got married; they had kids. They were so good with me, and I would ask questions. I’ve been married for 22 years now; I’ve been with my wife for 25 years. They would give me all sorts of advice on fatherhood, on being a good husband, and stuff. That was really helpful.
Bob: There is one other subject we have to ask you about, because it’s really one of the things that you deal with a lot in this book; and that’s the question of forgiveness—
Bob: —which is not something that happened instantly for you, as a follower of Christ.
Mez: Yes; it’s a question I always get: “Do you forgive?” “Do you not forgive?” People always point to the story of Joseph. I think I say in the book, “Why does everybody jump straight to Genesis 50 with Joseph?—‘You meant it for evil but God meant it for good’?” They forget the decade he spent in jail, and the guy went through a process. Sometimes, I think we iron out the wrinkles in the Bible.
This whole process for me, even as a pastor, forgiveness has been difficult. “Do I have a responsibility to forgive my abusers?”—I suppose is the question. My answer, controversially, is: “I don’t think I do, actually, have a responsibility.” Now, I do, though, have a responsibility not to harbor bitterness in my heart towards her—well, she’s dead now, anyway—her or any of my other abusers. As a Christian, I do have a responsibility to leave judgment and justice in the hands of the Lord. It’s not mine for vengeance; is it? The Lord says, “I’ll repay.” I’m going to leave that to the Lord’s justice. That’s taken time.
However, if she had come to me, repented and asked for forgiveness, then I would definitely have a responsibility, as a Christian, to forgive her. Thankfully, in the providence of God, that never happened to me. I don’t know how I would have responded. I’d like to tell you, “Well, I’d forgive her; because I’m such an amazing Christian.” I think that would have caused me some soul searching.
The book, at the end, is deliberately/actually, quite vague—not vague in giving an answer—but like, “There is more than one way to answer this question.” I wouldn’t go up to someone, who suffered abuse; and the first thing I would do is—right? —“Now, you need to forgive that person from the heart.” What does that even mean? What does that look like? I want to give people space.
Have I forgiven the woman who abused me—my main abuser? The answer to that question is “No; I haven’t,”—if by what you mean is—“Did we meet up?—and I said, ‘Forgive and forget,’?”—no. But do I still have bitterness or anger toward her in my heart? The answer is truly: “No; I don’t. I leave it to the justice of the Lord.” It makes people feel uncomfortable—that answer—because they want me to go, “No; you’ve got to forgive. You’ve got to forgive.” I have heard this all the time: “You must forgive.” Well, it’s slightly more nuanced than that, I think.
Dave: Was there ever a time that you can look back and think through when the bitterness subsided? Did it go away?
Mez: I think earlier, as I was praying, it was like, “Yes; I’m going to forgive this. I’m getting on with my life. I’m not going to be a hostage to this anymore.” Then, when I had children, it came back a little. I looked at—I’m holding my kids in my hands—and I’m thinking, “You absolute monster. How could you do this?” Then it went away; really, can’t think I’ve held any bitterness toward her for a long time.
Now, when I found out about her death—those four or five years ago—even then, I wasn’t bitter. I just felt sad and had a conflict of emotions, like, “Yes; she’s dead. I hope she’s in hell,” and “Well, you shouldn’t be thinking that. You’re a pastor; you should…”—that conflict that goes on, even as a pastor, within me; because obviously, we know what’s the right answer. I could tell you all these cheesy, Christian answers—I’m so sick of hearing them—I don’t think it brings any comfort to people.
I think people, in a book like this, hopefully, will see—in the rawness/in the battle that you see on the pages—that that’s where the comfort comes from—that: “Listen, I’m not abnormal for being a Christian, 15/20 years, and still fighting with these things. I’m not a bad Christian just because I’ve not put things to rest from my childhood, 30 years ago, just now; and the Lord is still”—that’s what the book was written—to counteract this almost weird obsession I find in middle-class Christianity with putting on a brave face, smiling, and pretending, “We’ve got Jesus in our hearts. There is sunshine in the air. If you’ve not got it all together, then you have a faulty theology.” I’m just not convinced that that is true; that’s just me.
Bob: What about with your dad?
Mez: Yes; I have a good relationship with my dad.
Bob: Have you forgiven him?
Mez: He never asked for it, and I don’t feel like I need to give him any. If anything, I have sympathy for him. He was never violent toward me or irate down to me. He’s actually a really nice guy. I think he was just a young, foolish guy—got married too soon/had kids too soon—wasn’t emotionally capable. He probably, if I asked him now—we don’t talk about it—he’s in his 60s now—“Do you have regrets?” I’m sure of it. I don’t see any spiritual benefit in dragging things from a lifetime ago for him. Do you know what I mean by that?
Ann: I’m wondering—you had a woman speaking death and hatred in your ear for years, and that seeps down into your soul.
Mez: Even—listen, when I was writing the book, I remember some stuff—the bad stuff, to be honest, I had to edit out—the really horrific stuff. Look, I honestly just love Jesus; and I trust Jesus. When I get to heaven, it’s all going to be because of Jesus; and I’m going to get there, a bit dinged up along the way; but I’ll take this 60/70 years of whatever is going on right now just to hang out with the Lord forever after.
I know that’s not like a great answer, but I spent too long—I wasted 20 years destroying myself: drugs, stupidity, anger, bitterness—I’ve lived my last 25 years seeking to love people, forgive people, minister to people, pastor people. I’m not going to let her words define me anymore. I’m a new creation; the old is gone—that means the old man; doesn’t mean the old pain—I’m not glad that it happened to me; but I’m glad that I’m able to serve people, because it happened to me.
Dave: Thank you, Mez. As I read your book, the honesty is so refreshing and hard to read. Honestly, man, as I was reading, I was like, “Boohoo for my life,”—my dad walked out; you know?—and I felt all this pain. Then I read your pain, and I’m like, “Wow!”
Mez: But you shouldn’t do that, though, because your pain is still as real as my pain.
Dave: Yes; it’s still—it’s my pain, and it’s real; but you know, when I picked up the book and I read the forward: “This is the most disturbing book that I have ever read, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.” As I read the book, I thought, “That is so true.” It’s got the pain and the gospel at the end of the day; the story is not about you.
Dave: It’s about Jesus and you being a brand-new creation.
It is so beautifully written, because it exposes sin; and it overwhelms you with grace. That’s what I’m hearing from your story. Your life and your story is going to be used by God, as you know, to literally transform generations, for generations to come, because of your honesty—letting us in the dark—but allowing the light to overpower in such a powerful way. You are a new creation; you give us hope that we can be, and our [future] generations, can be as well; so thanks.
Mez: Man, appreciate that. Yes; that’s cool.
Bob: Well, again, we’ve been listening to a conversation we had recently with Mez McConnell, the author of a book called The Creaking on the Stairs. It is a remarkable story of God’s providential care and His redemption in a person’s life. I’m thinking of the person, who may have experienced physical abuse in their own background or a significantly dysfunctional family background; and they think, “I don’t know if I can recover from this.” Reading Mez’s book shows you, with God, all things are possible.
Dave: And there are actually so many people I’ve recommended this book to.
Dave: And I think so many of them are trying to recover from such darkness, they’ve lost hope; and this book brings hope back. There is a God; He sees you; He knows you; He can heal you.
Ann: I think it just reminds us of there is no one so far gone that God cannot rescue them.
Bob: Yes; you can get a copy of Mez’s book, The Creaking on the Stairs, when you go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to request your copy: 1-800-FL-TODAY is the number. Again, the book is called The Creaking on the Stairs by Mez McConnell, Finding Faith in God Through Childhood Abuse. Order your copy when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order: 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
I sometimes wish our listeners had the opportunity to hear the stories that we’ve heard from people, whose lives, and marriages, and families have been changed because they went to a Weekend to Remember®, they were listening to a FamilyLife Today program, they got a resource, read something that we put online. God used this ministry in their lives to alter the course of their life, and their marriage, and their family.
I say that because I want those of you, who are regular listeners, and who invest in the ministry of FamilyLife®, to know that’s what you’re investing in. Changed lives and changed legacies is what FamilyLife Today is all about. The story we’ve heard from Mez this week is a story of God’s intervention in his life; and if it hadn’t been for those soccer players, who kept coming back and kept presenting the gospel to him, who knows where he’d be today?
Well, in the same way, if it weren’t for FamilyLife Today—the resources, this daily radio program coming back every day, being here/being available—there are some of you, who would say, “I don’t know where I’d be today if it weren’t for this ministry.” Thank you to those of you, who are regular donors/contributors to this ministry. You’re investing in the lives and legacies of hundreds of thousands of people every day through your donations, and we’re grateful to be partnered together with you.
If you are a longtime listener, and you’ve never made a donation, or if it’s been a while, make an investment today. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to donate, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY and make a donation over the phone. If God has used this ministry in your life, pay it forward for someone else. Again, donate at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, tomorrow, we want to talk about what it’s like for the men and women who—every day, get up, and put on a uniform, and put on a badge—and head out into what have been increasingly more difficult environments for police officers in our cities and our communities. What’s it like on their marriages and on their families? Adam Davis joins us tomorrow to talk about that. I hope you can tune in as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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