Retrenchment and Joy: An Afternoon with Roger Nicole in a Season of Accumulation

This post was published just 15 days before Roger Nicole went to be with the Lord.

Most students I know are in a season of accumulation.  Some are married with growing families.  They need more furniture.  They often need more space.  They are also buying more books.

Since many of these students will be pastors, book and study tool accumulation is important.  Books are a key part of a pastor’s workshop.  Pastors need an adequate personal library to help them direct a church, study the Bible, and think through all kinds of issues.  Just as a first rate carpenter needs excellent tools for his craft, so pastors need a thoroughly equipped tool bench as well. Blessed is the church that gives their pastor a book buying budget so they can have first rate tools for their craft.

Lately I’ve had the privilege of spending time with some senior saints nearing the end of their public ministries.   Each of them reminded me of the limits of accumulation.

It started a few years ago with my own father who had been a pastor and then president and chancellor of Moody Bible Institute.  In trying to downsize, he was giving away about a third of his library.  I thought to myself—“dad, you can’t give away all those precious books!”   But at his age and stage it was appropriate, and forced me to think about the seasons of life.

Not long after that conversation, I had the privilege spending time with John Stott after he ended his public ministry.  Stott was a pastor, Bible teacher and according to Billy Graham “the most respected evangelical clergy men in the world today.”  But in his 80s he was confined to an Anglican rest home for retired ministers.  He had only one room with a bed, a desk and a sitting area for meeting visitors.  His library was quite small.  His eyesight was failing and he used a walker.  Again, a sense of the seasons of ministry and their impermanence hit me.

Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of spending time with another great senior saint—Roger Nicole who lives in a retirement home in central Florida.  Roger is professor emeritus of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Orlando.  He is a native  Swiss Reformed Baptist theologian.  He has long been regarded as one of the preeminent theologians in America.  Roger earned two doctoral degrees, one from Gordon and one from Harvard. He was a founding member and past president of ETS, and has authored or co-authored countless articles and fifty plus books.   Roger once had a massive library with many rare books.  Several years ago he gave a large portion of that library to the seminary.  RTS now houses the Roger Nicole collection.

Dr. Nicole is now in his 90s.  While he can’t hear well, his mind is extremely sharp.  In our conversation he kept speaking about life’s “retrenchment.”

Used of an organization, the word “retrenchment” refers to a reduction in costs or spending in response to an economic downturn.   But used more generally it refers to reducing something, scaling back, downsizing.

Roger spoke thankfully about the way God had blessed his life, but now he was in a season of retrenchment.  He is still miffed that he was only allowed to bring 150 of his books into his assisted living room. Then he spoke about the other things he has given up.   He said, “I don’t have classes anymore,” (it was plain he missed his students).  He added, “and I don’t have Annette anymore,” (his beloved wife who died several years ago).  Then he spoke of losing some of his abilities—his hearing loss bothers him  most.

For many of us, encounters with a senior saint like this can be wonderfully instructive.  For while this retrenchment business may not be our present experience, it will soon be.  There is wisdom in occasionally looking down the road.

It is so easy to define ourselves by our stuff.  Students building their libraries do so in their season of accumulation.  Educators enjoy the pleasures of being surrounded by our books and take pride in our libraries.  As I write this on Black Friday, we stand at the beginning of our annual season of accumulation—the Christmas shopping spree has begun.   And it’s all about getting more.

Roger’s emphasis on “retrenchment” was a one word warning at the beginning of a new holiday season that soon all these things will be stripped away.  For as Scripture reminds us,  “we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it” (1 Timothy 6.7).

Dr. Nicole spoke of his own retrenchment, not with deep complaint, but with a proper sense of realism and lament that comes from any loss. There was melancholy in his voice as he reminisced about days gone by and noted what he no longer had.  But then he paused in the conversation.  And with all the vigor of his French accented English emphatically exclaimed–“but I have joy.”   And this, he said, could not be taken away!   Not only that, but Dr. Nicole clearly understood that his present retrenchment is a season as well.

We ended our visit by opening up the Scriptures and reading together from Psalm 16.  That great psalm begins—“Keep my safe, O God, for in you I take refuge….I said to the LORD, “You are my LORD, apart from you I have no good thing…….You have assigned me my portion and my cup…….Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices.”

It was with particular eagerness that Dr. Nicole recited from memory as I read the last part of the psalm.  “My body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay……. You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”

Seeing beyond our seasons of accumulation and retrenchment, Dr. Nicole clearly had his eye on yet another season, which for him, seemed just around the corner.