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Years ago, right out of college and newly married, I took a position as an associate/youth pastor at a small, very fine church in Houston, Texas. At the time I had not heard of Bill Gothard, but at our senior pastor’s suggestion, that first week in May found my wife and me sitting for half a dozen days with several thousand others who were dutifully following along in a Red Notebook.
Too much time has passed for me to remember the details, but I do recall being touched by the grandness of the music, impressed by Bill Gothard’s seeming humility, and — I remember the Red Notebook. Filled with assorted lists of sinful attitudes and healthy life principles, to me it smelled not just of fresh plastic vinyl, but of ministry success! The artful illustrations of umbrellas, rebellious children, and spiritual flowcharts made perfect sense to my young mind.
Later that summer, our pastor resigned and moved to Africa as a missionary. Suddenly I was responsible for preaching twice on Sunday morning, once on Sunday evening and teaching on Wednesday night. All of this at 23 years old!
I was desperate, but my Red Notebook quickly became a source for some of my sermons. No doubt I was bordering on plagiarism, but having been married for barely a year and with no children, I used the Red Notebook for lessons on Christian living and family life. After all, if Bill Gothard the “scholar” said it, it must be true! Fortunately, most people ignored me.
I recall one counseling session with a young man brought into my office by his concerned mother. Working out of my Red Notebook, I quickly concluded that his poor school performance and lack of future goals was the result of a lack of submission to his father and to God. After all, what else could it be?
In our sessions, I did little listening; I mostly talked and quoted Scriptures to this young man who sat seemingly paralyzed by the whole process. Looking back, he likely suffered from a learning disability of some sort, and while his mother’s concerns were understandable, my Red Notebook did not account for life’s complexity.
Three years later, we moved to Dallas, where I matriculated into seminary, which was a wonderful experience. About two years into the four-year program, I attended a one-day pastor’s seminar hosted by Bill Gothard. Now that I had a better understanding of both hermeneutics and theology, I began to see just how much Bill Gothard “proof-texted” the Bible. Bending random passages to fit his very specific notions of life, love, and church, Bill Gothard and his Red Notebook began to lose credibility.
A few years later, as a pastor with more experience, I attended another such seminar where Bill Gothard magnificently mishandled the Bible by mandating a very specific worship liturgy — first the sermon and then the music. No flexibility! In addition, he insisted that church leaders visit every church home to ensure that each family had records (this was some time ago!) of edifying music. “Edifying” meant sacred and classical music. No classic rock during the week — or even Sandi Patti on a Sunday.
It was the last time I had anything to do with Bill Gothard.
It is a common error of youth to believe that most of life is white and black and solutions are simple. I was guilty of this. But like many pastors with a combination of church experience and a few children of my own, I now believe that life is quite complicated. Life’s problems are not given to easy, turn-to-the-right-page textbook answers from a Red Notebook.
Last year, I was a guest speaker at a church in Houston, and the parents of that then-young man introduced themselves and asked if I remembered them. To their surprise I did, and in our reunion conversation I found out that their son, the young man I had “counseled” from a Red Notebook so many years ago, is now gainfully employed, has an intact marriage, and, by all accounts, has done fine in life. No thanks to me!
Hopefully both God and the parties involved have forgiven me for my youthful hubris and psychological plagiarism in which I parroted the Red Notebook to them as though it were divine gospel!
Some years ago, during the last week of the last millennium, I took advantage of the quiet time after Advent to clean up my church office. I was committed to starting the new century fresh, and my goal was to lose 150 or so pounds. So I spent the week carefully going through desk drawers, file cabinets, and bookcases. Alone and with few interruptions, by the last Friday of that year, that century, and that millennium, I finished. Having dumped reams of outdated files into the church dumpster, I was certain that there were no loose papers anywhere.
That was the last I ever saw of my Red Notebook!
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