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Journey to Genuineness

by Mark Gregston

Never did I think that I would be the executive director of a program for struggling teens called Heartlight. Well, we now have 60 kids living with us and we’ve lived with over 3,000 kids up to this point. Never was planned, never knew that it was coming. Never knew that that was on the horizon for me. Here I am on the other side of life where a lot of friends around me are retiring, but I’ve looked back at a lot of my time and a lot of the things that were discovered along the way on my journey. I would call it a journey to genuineness. 

People come to me and say, how did you ever start Heartlight? I said, well, I have to be honest with you. I’ve been fired twice in my life. The first time I was fired was from a barbecue place called Tennessee Jazz. I was in the ninth grade. I was cutting pork and meat, making barbecue sauce and baking beans and on the weekends I would pull weeds from around the restaurant. I worked there a few months, did a great job. Right there at 51st and Chariton in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The owner came up and said, I’ve decided to let you go. 

The next time I heard those words was about four or five months before we started Heartlight. I was in Branson, Missouri, and working for a ministry. I’d left a position with Young Life and was now working for another organization. Out of the blue in my mind, I’m sure it wasn’t in my boss’s mind, but out of the blue in my mind, somebody sat down with me and said, I’ve decided to let you go. It was a shock to us. It sent us into another world. I thought every dream that I had at that time was gone. I thought it was probably the first time that I really felt like I was hopeless. I didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t know who to talk to. I was lost. It came out of left field. It was a surprise to me. I was distraught. I didn’t sleep for the next few weeks. I had never experienced that much rejection.  

I felt betrayal of relationships. The people that I worked with, except for a couple, kind of just shut me off and, and pushed me out. I was lonely. I was living at one place and traveling to Texas to raise money and start a new organization, but yet people had moved on with their lives. I felt depleted. It took me a long time to get out of bed in the morning. There was a guy at this camp called Camp Kanakuk, where we were living, that wasn’t the organization I was fired from. They were just providing housing for us, but a guy named Spike White would come over every morning and get me out of bed. He’d knock on our back door. He’d come in and he and his dog would get me out of bed and say, come on, get up, get up, get up. You got a program to start. Uh, real encouragement… but I got so depressed that my antidote was busy-ness.  

 I started getting very busy… you know, just kind of trying to figure out how bad all these people were around me, why they would fire me. I stewed. I was bothered for years, and even now, when I think of that, even though it was 32 years ago, there is still hurt. That comes along with it. One day when we started Heartlight, one of our new board members, said to me, you’ve got to look at why you got fired and figure out what your part was. You’ll be better for it. And that stuck with me for a long time. I was always sitting back thinking, why was I fired? Cause I really wasn’t told the reasons, it was just a matter that I was right. But there was a feeling that I didn’t know why I was fired. I probably wrestled with it for three or four years as we started Heartlight. 

In the beginning stages I realized that I didn’t listen very well. I also realized that I was pretty selfish. I realized that was never wrong, or I thought. That I was looking out for me. That I was critical of other people, and I talked about it to others a lot and I shouldn’t have. We’d have meetings and I always thought it was everybody else that my boss was talking to in correction. Clearly, what he was doing was trying to correct me. I didn’t want to take on what I thought he was speaking to everybody else about. Maybe that was a sense of pride, but, you know, I avoided what I needed to deal with because it was motivating me to serve others. 

The very things that I avoided was my motivation for serving others. You know, sometimes I think as parents of struggling teens, it’s almost like you’ve been fired. You spend all your time coaching baseball and going to soccer games and watching basketball and taking them to dance and music, lessons, and ballet. You’re involved in school and you’re doing all these things. And all of a sudden that little girl that walks upstairs one day comes down the next day is a completely different person. And you feel like you’ve been fired. She says this, I don’t think I need you anymore. So, if you’re like me, you feel this sense of rejection and loss and loneliness and feeling of being depleted. You don’t know where to go and you don’t know what to do. You know, when I got fired, it was interesting to me, the first person to show up on my doorstep was a guy by the name of Joe White. He’s the owner of Kanakuk camps in Branson, Missouri. 

He showed up on my doorstep and I was in tears, he grabbed hold of me and hugged me. He goes… I want you to know something. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to you in your life. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. I just could not put it together. You know what I’ve realized that over time… that maybe when we’re lost and don’t know where to go and are struggling and looking for new direction. Maybe, maybe that’s a good place to start. You’ve got to start asking yourself the questions. The same questions that our board member asked me when I was fired, and the same as a parent with a struggling teen. 

Are you listening? Are you being selfish? Are you ever wrong? Are you looking out for you? Are you being too critical? Are you talking about this too much and not doing what you need to be doing? I think these are big questions for a lot of parents. Some of the ways you parent may be coming from the issues in your own life that might need to be resolved. I know that my dad did not communicate a sense of value to me when I was growing up. So, I found other ways to find value. I worked hard. I connected with my childhood sweetheart. I swam competitively for 13 years and went to the university of Arkansas to swim. I ran for student government. I was always out front.  

I think even my motivation for leading a Young Life club or working for a church is that it put me in a position of authority where I was valued by somebody else. Because my dad didn’t value me, I was looking for value everywhere else. Basically, it was this, the very thing that I needed to work through was the very thing that was motivating me for doing the work that I was doing. A lot of good came out of it, but then I realized that my dad was still controlling me, and that is not what God had in mind in a parent child relationship. 

It moved me to a point of having to deal with the issues in my life. I think that’s what Scripture would be talking to us about when we’re supposed to be looking at the log in our own eye, rather than the speck in our child’s eye. When we feel like they just fired us, the tendency is to think that it’s all about them. That there is something wrong with them. There is nothing wrong with me. But the first place that we’ve got to start is with me. The resolution of issues has an amazing way of producing an authenticity and a genuineness in people, which is exactly what your teens want from you.  

There’s something about the struggle that keeps you in a good place, because it means that you’re looking for something better. You’re looking for something that is going to meet the needs in a greater way. You’re breaking out of old wineskins and creating new wineskins. You’re engaging differently. You’re learning new styles. You’re not giving up. You’re not limiting your parenting to your own understanding, but you’re gaining more and more understanding from somebody else. 

There are some things I would ask of you and maybe this is some homework that you could do. Maybe the only time I’m ever going to give out homework. You have to figure out what your part is. What’s your part in this thing? With dealing with a child that’s starting to spin out? You’ve got to start questioning yourself. It’s called reflection. It’s called spending time engaging in looking at you rather than spending all your time, reflecting on how everybody else is wrong. The next thing would be to deal with the issues that have plagued you look, we’re all not perfect. Which means we’re imperfect. Which means there’s things in our life that are unresolved, that have been maybe forgotten or put on the back burner or covered up. If you’re like me, you get busy. And busy-ness has an amazing way of keeping people from facing the more important things in life that need engaging. 

I would also encourage you to begin your journey of genuineness and authenticity. Find out who you really are, who are you performing for? What voids are you trying to fill? Figure those things out and say, God, I need you to fill these voids. I don’t need to be controlled by my dad. I don’t need to be controlled by things that have happened. Trauma and difficulty, where I’ve been a victim… I don’t need those to control me. I really am not supposed to be having a time that I was fired, controlling me. But I know that it has some point. Those folks have come back to me two or three times asking that I take over their organization…  

And you know, there’s a bit of my flesh that feels wonderful about that. When I hear they’re not doing well, I go there. Makes me feel good. And what that means is that the hurt has been there. It’s been resolved, but there’s still that soft spot. Now I realized that. And so, I don’t do anything negative with it. I just know that’s a part of me, and you know what that does? I think it tenderizes me a little bit. It just makes me a little bit more tender. Now that could be that I’m 65 and I’m getting a little bit older. I’ve figured out what’s important and what’s not important. I realize that I’m on my journey to genuineness and authenticity, and that I’m going to really realize who I am and who I’m not. Who I’m supposed to be performing for and who I’m not supposed to be performing for. What my role is and where my role is, not what I can do and what I can’t do. I need to know who I am, but I also need to embrace who I am.  

This would be my prayer for you… It’s out of Psalm 139:23-24. Just listen in the context of being a parent and you have a struggling child… “Lord search me, know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there’s any hurtful ways in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” You know, the firing. I get back to that. Most of us that were involved in all that 30 plus years ago, we can laugh about it. Forgiveness has been granted everywhere. I’ve gotten with those people again and you know what? It was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was the hardest time of my life, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me.  

Take advantage of this journey. I pray that your journey of genuineness will lead you to a great place of figuring out who you are, so that you can engage differently and affect purposely the lives of your kids and those that God has put in your life. 

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.