Suffering in Light of the Cross
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Mez McConnellMez McConnell is the senior pastor of 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
As a child, Mez McConnell suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his stepmom. Mez describes his path from abuse to schoolyard bullying and, ultimately, to a prison term before finding Jesus.
Suffering in Light of the Cross
Bob: Mez McConnell grew up in Scotland, being physically abused by his stepmother. Early on, he had to develop strategies for survival.
Mez: The rule is: “Protect your kidneys at all costs”; that’s the painful one. As long as I didn’t get a kick to the kidneys—I could take the kick to the face and the head—so try and get your back to the wall if you can. It took me a couple of years to learn that one.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, October 5th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. How does a young person learn to survive when their regular experience is physical abuse at home? We’ll talk to Mez McConnell about that today. Stay with us.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I think one of the questions that plagues all of us is when we stop and wonder: “Where is God in the midst of some of the stories we hear about people, particularly children, who are experiencing abuse/who are suffering?” We think, “How can a good, loving, compassionate God allow that to continue if, indeed, He has the power to keep that from happening?”
Ann: I’m wondering if all of us go through a time, where we wonder that: when we lose a spouse, a child, when there’s been abuse. I know I’ve wondered that: “God, I’ve been praying all these times—for all these months or years—and it seems like You don’t even hear me.”
Dave: I would say, after 40 years in ministry, that is the number-one question, in my opinion. It’s universal, because it’s a real—how do you answer that question?
Bob: We are connecting with someone, whose life story gives some light on that question.
Bob: Mez McConnell is joining us. We should say, he is joining us, virtually, because Mez is in Edinburgh, Scotland; we’re in Little Rock, Arkansas. Technology is making it possible for us to connect. Mez, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Mez: Thanks for having me, guys. I appreciate it.
Dave: I just looked it up; it’s 4,238 miles in between us. [Laughter]
Bob: Mez gives leadership to a ministry called 20schemes. Mez, explain to our listeners what 20schemes is all about.
Mez: A scheme in Scotland is somewhere—like imagine a trailer park crossed with a project crossed with a North American Indian reservation—it’s where, historically, the working-class poor lived. My scheme, for instance, is over 200 years old; families have lived on them for two centuries. In that sense, they have that North American Indian culture. About two million people in Scotland live in schemes.
20schemes aims to plant or revitalize gospel-preaching churches in 20 of Scotland’s poorest communities. You’re more likely to find a Christian walking down the street in Saudi Arabia than you are in a housing scheme in Scotland.
Bob: Wow; oh, my word.
Dave: Wow; so what does that look like? How do you plant a church there? Are they receptive?
Mez: Yes, very receptive. Historically, the ‘60s was a peak in the UK in schemes; the churches would’ve been filled. The last five decades has been a steady decline. Culturally, people recognize a church building in the middle of their community; because that’s where their grandma went to Sunday school, or their parents were buried, etc. There’s a cultural acceptance of the church as an entity, but largely viewed as irrelevant.
We currently have ten church plants in various levels across four cities in Scotland; families move in. In some instances, we take over old church buildings and we revitalize them. We’re seeing success; we’re seeing people converted/saved. God’s doing the business amongst the poor in Scotland right now.
Bob: We’re grateful for that ministry and also grateful for the story you have shared in the book you’ve written called The Creaking on the Stairs. Honestly, Mez, as I read through this book, I thought, “If this was a part of my background, this is a story I would not want to revisit.”
Mez: Yes; it’s certainly not a story I could’ve written in my 20s. In fact, I signed the contract for the book four years before I first wrote a word of it. It was difficult to know what to leave out and what not to leave out. There’s a phenomenon out here called “poverty [unintelligible].” One wants to hear about poverty and get all the [unintelligible], you know—juicy as possible—and I wanted to try to avoid that and make the book about Jesus.
Bob: The overarching story you tell is the story of the abuse you experienced at the hands of your stepmother, primarily, for a period of years—for how many years?
Mez: About 11 years, yes.
Bob: We’re talking about abuse that was—
Bob: —so significant you passed out on many occasions from beatings that you experienced at her hand.
Mez: Yes, yes; beaten unconscious. It’s actually abuse by her friends/neighbors.
Bob: Give us the overview of your family situation. When did your mom pass?—did your parents divorce? Take us back to the beginning of the story.
Mez: I’m actually from Ireland, the Republic of Ireland. I was born in Ireland in the ‘70s. My mother, I think, is still alive—walked out on us; I was two years old. My dad was just drinking and gambling—a young man; he’d have been 21/22.
My sister and I—who’s a year older than me—we ended up in care in Northern Ireland in the early ‘70s, which was at the height of the IRA bombing campaign. I don’t know if you know much about the IRA then. A big group of children were put on boats and shipped to England. I ended up in an orphanage, if you like, in the north of England.
Bob: How old were you when you were put into an orphanage?
Mez: I would’ve been two when I first went in. I think I was seven when I came to England. I went to a big children’s home in Yorkshire. My dad had moved to England by then with this woman. We were sort of in and out of care—I would be in foster parents for awhile; then I’d come back and stay with them/back with my dad and this woman for awhile; then I’d be back in care. That went on for a number of years.
Bob: Why would you be removed from your home?—because a social worker was recognizing you were in danger in your home?
Mez: Yes, yes; we weren’t told. We would just be removed in the early hours of the morning/whatever. People would come in/strangers, and just take us, and we would be taken away.
Bob: But how did anyone even know what was happening to you?
Mez: I’m assuming school reports/things like that. It would be pretty apparent; we were pretty malnourished.
Dave: As we were reading the book, when you went to be with your dad and your stepmom, it was really horrific; right?
Mez: She was a very brutally cruel woman. Yes, we’d be starved and beaten. You understand my dad was a young man in his 20s. He had two kids; he liked to drink. He worked; he was a [unintelligible]; he still is. He liked to drink; he was out a lot. She, obviously, had a lot of anger towards him for dumping what she would’ve viewed as “his kids” on her to look after.
She wasn’t the smartest person, I came to realize. She used to beat me just for reading. If I was caught with a book, I was tortured. It wasn’t until I was older/much older that I discovered, “Aw, she couldn’t even read very well.” She had probably a lot of insecurities that were inflicted on me and my sister.
Dave: Obviously, you’re building up—even as a young boy, then a young man—this bitterness. It becomes a story that people learn about when you write—what was it?—a blog, after her death: “Ding dong, the wicked witch is dead.” Talk about that; because that’s sort of, in some ways, why we’re sitting here today, because then the world found out your story.
Mez: Yes; you have to understand that there’s a previous book to this book called Is There Anybody Out There? Don’t know if you realize that—which I wrote about/it must be about 15 years old now—which is the first book to The Creaking on the Stairs. It’s quite well-known, in that sense; but the kernel of the idea—I didn’t intend to write a book on child abuse—I was in the house one night, and a friend texted me and said, “Do you know she has died?”—this woman. I said, “No.” Then, obviously, went online and googled it; and there she was—she had died very young.
I couldn’t sleep. I hadn’t thought about it for a long time. I just sort of wrote—I like to write because it helps me to relax, so I wrote this blog. Then, the thing just went mental; I think about a million hits or something in the first 24 hours. I was getting hundreds of communications from around the world, from pastors and other people who had been abused, and said it resonated with them. Quite a few people suggested, “Would you write a book?” I’m like, “No, I don’t feel like I want to do it.”
I can’t remember why/how it came about; but then I thought, “You know, maybe I ought to write a book; but I want to write a book that’s evangelistic/that’s honest. That it’s alright to say, ‘Hang on a minute. If God’s out there, why is He allowing this to happen to us?’” There’s not very many honest books out there. I didn’t want to make it an intellectual apologetics book. I wanted to make it a sort of raw, visceral “This is the path I walked,” to try and get some answers. Even then, those answers aren’t always satisfactory; are they?
Ann: So, Mez, walk us back through some of that. You were with this stepmom for how many years?—and the abuse was constant?
Mez: Between the ages of two to thirteen.
Ann: Those are significant years too.
Mez: Oh, yes. And I’m talking terrorized; yes, it was pretty bad.
Bob: If abuse starts at the age of two, you’re probably not even able to process, at any level, what’s happening to you. It becomes the expectation that this is what life is like, to be beaten like this.
Mez: Yes; I didn’t process what happened to me until after she left and my dad remarried. I was 13 years old and in high school. I just assumed, this is what happened to people. No one ever talked about it, and so I never talked about it. It’s only as I grew and matured and I thought, “Hang on a minute. This wasn’t right what happened to me.” Then I began to get very angry.
Ann: I think I was in my 20s. I had grown up with sexual abuse; and in my 20s was the first time I think I realized, “Oh, I was sexually abused.” It was life; it was normal; I didn’t know anything different. I didn’t know other people didn’t experience that. Then you go through a whole processing.
In that time, walk us through—look at your life—God has redeemed and done so much. What was your belief about God in those years, growing up?
Mez: I didn’t grow up in a religious family, obviously. I sort of believed in God as a kid. There wasn’t a rational belief system; I just thought there must be something out there. I think I mentioned in the book—I tried praying, as a kid, and saying, “Lord, please help me, and do this and that.” But nothing was happening; so I thought, “This is nothing; I’m wasting my time.” As I got older, and sometimes I’d hear people talk about God, and I’d be very, very like, “I’m not having it. God doesn’t exist. If He did exist, He’s one sick individual.”
As soon as I hit my sort of late teens—sort of 16/17—started getting heavily involved in drugs, and crime, and stuff; then, I had lots of anger and frustration.
Bob: In those years, when you were being abused by your stepmother, was your father aware this was happening to you?
Mez: We had this discussion. He says he wasn’t, and I largely believe him; but at the same time, he must have had some inkling what was going on. To be fair to him, the only time he really saw her beating me, she was beating me with a big brass iron over the head. That’s the time he kicked her out, and she never came back.
Again, I look back/I reflect back on that—again, I don’t want to justify things for my dad; I love my dad; he was a young guy, in his 20s—no way could he be responsible for two children. In fact, she was, probably to him, just a glorified babysitter. He was always out with his pals, watching the football, drinking; always down at the betting shop. Ironically, his gambling caused me the most pain as a child.
Bob: Explain that. What do you mean?
Mez: It was the same every Friday. He would get paid, and he would go straight to the bookies/the betting shops. He’d do his whole wages on the horses. If it was a bad Friday—and nine times out of ten, it was a bad Friday—all his wages were gone; and he would roll in, drunk. I would get absolutely tortured for it.
Sometimes she would send me out on a Friday—I’m talking five, six, seven years old—barefoot, down the road, to the bookies. I had to go in, try to get him to come out. If I didn’t get him to come out, I got beaten. I don’t think he quite realizes that; we have talked since. He’s not read this book; he’s read the first one. I don’t think he quite realized how some of that behavior/that his behavior, actually, affected me and my sister detrimentally.
Ann: That’s what I was going to ask about your sister. Was she going through all the same kind of abuse?
Mez: Oh, yes; worse for her—she was disabled—she had a bone missing in her arm and leg. So yes; she took it. She was absolutely hammered. She was a year older than me. Often, we’d be separated and sent into different foster care—stuff like that. It was just chaos. You wonder how children survive it. I wonder now—like, “We just got on with it.”
Ann: How did you survive it?
Mez: I have no idea. I’d love to give you the cheesy/the “grace of God” answer—and I’m sure that’s correct—but I survived it by reading books. I was a little book smuggler. [Laughter] I could read, apparently, from the age of three, from a book. I can’t remember a time when I’ve not read.
I had to be careful, because I would be beaten. Sometimes, she would strip me naked and make me stand outside in the cold if she caught me with a book. I had various hiding places out in the garden and in walls down the road. I liked to read, and it was sort of like my escape from reality.
Bob: Was being beaten something that was happening to you daily/weekly?
Mez: Yes; daily.
Mez: Several times; oh, yes.
Bob: And was there ever a time, as seven-year-old boy, that you picked up a stick and threatened her?—tried to fight back at all?
Mez: No, no.
Bob: Why not?
Mez: I was too small/I was a small little fella. The first time I remember fighting back in that sense, I think I was about 12 years old. She was kicking me in the face for some reason; I can’t remember what it was. I remember I just sat up and I just said, “Look, I’ve had enough of this. You’re not my mother; get away from me.” That stopped her in her tracks for half a day, anyway.
I did see her—she left when I was about 14, I think. My dad married when I was about 14 or 15—remarried—but anyway, she left. I was halfway through grammar school, which I got tortured for.
Ann: Meaning you were tortured because—explain what grammar school is.
Mez: Grammar school—there was a dual system in the UK at the time; there still is to some degree—there’s a national exam that children, age 11, would take called the Eleven-plus Exam. That would establish whether you went to a comprehensive school, just like a normal comprehensive high school; or you went to what was called a grammar school that’s for children who fall into this top two percent intelligent pupils in the country.
I won a place into grammar school.
Ann: —which was amazing and exciting for you, I’m thinking.
Mez: Oh, I was buzzing; but she was absolutely incandescent about that.
Dave: She’s upset because—
Bob: —because you’re smart!
Mez: I don’t know; yes. She always told me: “You’re thick,” “You’re stupid,” “You’re a moron,” “You’re a loser,” “You’ll never be good at anything. You’re just like your dad.” All that was drilled.
Then, when I came home with that piece of paper, that was a glorious moment—let me tell you.
Bob: Explain what happened. You brought home the paper that was going to tell whether you’re going to grammar school or whether you’re going to comprehensive school.
Mez: Yes; I took it, and I passed with actually a lot of distinction—could’ve picked any school I wanted to go to, because of my marks. She kicked me up and down the stairs that day. But I loved it—“Bring it on,”—it was brilliant. [Laughter]
Bob: What do you mean?!
Mez: She never called me “stupid” again, let me tell you that.
Bob: When you say you, “loved it; bring it on,” what do you mean?
Mez: I took it; it was a sweet beating. We used to call them “sweet beatings,”—me and my sister. There’s beatings—and I know it sounds a bit mad—but when it’s been happening for a decade, it’s like breathing. Some were sweet—that was a particularly sweet one—she could’ve beat me all day long, it wouldn’t have mattered; it wouldn’t have taken the joy out of me.
Dave: So did you just lay there and take it?
Mez: Yes, I took it; oh, yes.
Dave: Did you curl up?
Mez: I curled, yes. The rule is: “Protect your kidneys at all costs,”—that’s the painful one—so try and get your back to the wall if you can. It took me a couple of years to learn that one. As long as I didn’t get a kick to the kidneys—I could take a kick to the face and the head—you just protect your head; all you get, really, is bruised arms.
Bob: Mez, you said that, early, you just assumed that this was normal—that all kids were getting this kind of behavior; this is what life’s all about. When did it dawn on you, “This is not how it’s supposed to be”? Was it while it was still going on?—or after you were older?
Mez: I was a bit older. What happened was—I went to this grammar school. I wasn’t really accepted there; I came from a really poor housing estate. These were kids who came from private school education, so I stood out a little bit; got into a bit of trouble there.
My grades were great; my grades were A’s. A teacher one day was trying to humiliate me in front of the class about where I came from. I didn’t have the right uniform/clothes on; because I wasn’t given clothes. We’d get money from social services to buy me clothes, but they weren’t exactly—
Bob: —Seville Row?
Mez: Yes; so I looked like a homeless kid. I got a lot of stick for that.
One teacher was particularly trying to humiliate me. I picked up a chair and smacked him around the head with it. I think I might have been around 13 or 14. Then, I was taken to the headmaster’s office; and there was a big thing about, “You can’t behave like this,”—and da, da, da, da. I was like, “Everybody back right up. I can’t lose my temper—and here’s someone—that’s fine—but I’ve been taking this now for 11 years, and not one of you people have helped me.”
After that, that was a line—that I’m like, “I am now going to be uncooperative to anybody in authority.”
Ann: You told them, basically, “This has been my life growing up.” Was there any response or reaction?
Mez: Nothing; it’s like, “Your pain isn’t acceptable; we don’t care,”—da, da, da, da. “Fine.” After that, then, I drew a line in the sand and thought, “Right; well, I’m not having this.” And I got sucked into drugs and stuff very early then.
Ann: Of course, you would grow up with incredible anger, unresolved things—I’m thinking, self-hatred—all kinds of things that took you on a path of drugs; then you end up in prison.
Mez: Yes; that’s correct; yes.
Bob: We’ve been listening to the first part of a conversation we had recently with Mez McConnell. You know, you hear Mez’s story, which he has shared in a book called The Creaking on the Stairs. You think, “How does God take someone with this background, and bring life back into him, and then use him for the kingdom?”
Dave: Yes; it’s one of those, if you look at his story/read it on paper, you say, “There’s no way this young man even survives.” When I hear Mez talk and read his book, I’m like, “This is the ‘but God’ in Scripture.” This is the darkness/this is the desperation; but God, through His grace/through His mercy, has saved us. Apart from God, there is no—but with God, there is a miracle! With God, all things are possible!
Ann: That’s what I was going to say—it’s a miraculous story that’s really inspiring.
Bob: Yes; and we’ve just heard the first part of it. In fact, Mez tells the story in a book he’s written called The Creaking on the Stairs: Finding Faith in God Through Childhood Abuse. We’ve got that book available for our listeners. If you’d like a copy, go to FamilyLifeToday.com; or call us at 1-800-FL-TODAY to order. Again, the book is called The Creaking on the Stairs by Mez McConnell. Find it, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-358-6329 to order your copy—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
The reason we have these kinds of conversations is because there are so many families with so many challenges—so many people, who are trying to start a family today/raise their own kids, and their background is horrific, like Mez’s—they’ve experienced the same kind of abuse or dysfunction—the hurt/the trauma that sometimes happens in a family setting. It’s hard to know how to chart a new course when your own experience is as horrific as Mez’s was. At FamilyLife®, we are convinced that God is able to bring beauty from ashes—that He’s able to equip, and strengthen, and empower people to put a stake in the ground and to chart a new legacy. Dave, you’ve talked about that many times; that’s a part of your story.
We want to be here for you, regularly, with practical biblical help and hope as you seek to effectively develop a godly marriage and family—the resources that are available, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; our audio library that can be accessed for free anytime, with programs you can listen to on a wide variety of marriage and family subjects—we’re here to help equip you in the most important relationships we have in life: your relationship with God, with your spouse, with your kids, with your extended family. That’s what FamilyLife Today is all about.
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We hope you can join us tomorrow when we’re going to continue to hear more from Mez McConnell about his experience and find out how he wound up in Bible school preparing to be a church planter. That comes up tomorrow. I hope you can be with us for that.
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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