FREDERICK G. PERRY
Monday, July 7, 1991
When I think how many hours of association with Fred, how many memories, how many gifts given and received, are represented in this gathering, I cannot help realize how little of this can be put into words. The most I can do is to offer some blanks for you to fill in with your own experiences, as I do with mine.
John Donne said it beautifully in one of his “Devotions”--”No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe.” Especially in the busyness of everyday affairs, we tend to assume that we are islands, closed systems, and our own culture has virtually deified the ideal of self-sufficiency.
It is a dangerously superficial ideal. On the surface, we might say that Fred lived up to it, with a successful professional life, financial independence, and a secure retirement. However, I would be surprised indeed if these were the images of Fred that first came to mind on hearing of his death. There are people who have all these things, and who are lonely and empty at the close of their lives. I suspect that the images that came first to mind were ones that caught the quality of the person, and we see that quality with fullest clarity only in personal relationships.
Within the family, we find a devoted and responsible husband, a concerned and gentle father. He loved the North Country; and while some busy and successful men have used such interests as an escape from family responsibilities, he saw to it that it was the locus of family unity. This spilled over into his many friendships, and the thought that comes to my own mind most insistently is the spontaneous welcome I felt whenever I crossed one of his threshholds. If he loved the slopes of Wildcat or the touring trails of Jackson, he seemed to feel a special delight when he could share them with someone else.
This is not a model of self-sufficiency. Fred simply was not a loner. Family and friends were far too much a part of his being for that, and this was a strength of his character, not a weakness at all. His enjoyment of his profession rested partly in his delight in seeing things work out appropriately, partly in his lively interest in different parts of the world, but very largely in his appreciation of his colleagues. This same interest in people, with all their follies and foibles, marked his service to his church, both on the natiolnal level and at the summer camp just down the road; and it is that interest above all which has drawn this present gathering together.
Death has the ability to cut through superficialities. We know, at times like these, that some of the issues we have been preoccupied with are really of little moment, and that some we have set aside or postponed are vital. We sense our own mortality, I suppose, and it is hard not to wonder whether we are using our time as best we can. Sometimes there are the specific regrets, regrets that we had not discharged a particular duty, that we had not adequately expressed our affection, and that now it is “too late.”
There is little foundation for this regret, except within ourselves. As we felt an affection from Fred that he rarely verbalized, so he clearly felt ours. One cannot visualize him lying awake at night wondering whether one or another of us liked him. None of us would describe him as lonely or starved for affection. At whatever level matters most, he felt the care of his family and his friends.
By the same token, we ourselves are not self-sufficient. We are integral strands in a fabric of human relationships, and our lives, even our “selves,” are altered by Fred’s death. For his contemporaries, there is one less person around who shares a vast treasure of experiences, one less link with the generation before. For his children, there is an increase of individual responsibility, as a primary touchstone, a primary locus of values, is no longer there. For all of us, in one way or another, there is the reminder that we participate in each other, and that the quality of this participation is central to our nature as persons.
This church believes that this participation is what life is all about, and that it continues after physical death. As far as Fred is concerned, he has not just begun eternal life--he started that at the very beginning of his existence. He has begun consciousness of that life on the level we sense only dimly. He is now alive to the affections we find difficult to verbalize. It was abundantly clear over the past months that while his body was failing, his character was not. The physical changes were alarming, but Fred was still unmistakably Fred. The flesh, plainly and simply, was dying; the person, plainly and simply, was not.
Our theology says it quite clearly, that the life that leads to heaven is not a life of pious withdrawal from the world, but a life of constructive involvement in the world and its affairs. If we have at this moment a fresh glimpse of what matters most to us, that glimpse is likely to fade in the coming weeks--there will be so many things to take care of. The beauty of it is, though, that this very taking care of things can be a way in which we express our care for each other. Words of affection are fine, yes, but they are insubstantial without deeds of affection.
This leads me to one closing thought. Visualize Fred at his most characteristic for you, and reflect that this was a highly moral individual. This was not, praise be, the morality of the televangelists, displayed primarily through the condemnation of others. It has become all too clear what pitfalls of self-righteousness lie along that path. This was something that gets much less publicity--a happy morality, a devotion to ethical and religious principle that opened doors to trust and companionship.
Such lives are not lived by accident. There are countless decisions along the way. There are difficulties that have to be faced and sacrifices that have to be made. But the message is, when all is said and done, that a truly moral life is not austere and forbidding. It is simply thoughtful and caring, and no other kind of life is worth living.