Richard James Perry
My job is not to tell you how wonderful Richard was, but to try to articulate the challenge that his life throws at each of us.
But, he doesn't make it easy, does he.
Apart from all the obvious reasons why a talk like this is difficult, is the fact that we all know – anything I try to say about Richard, is impossible to say or to hear, without imagining him pulling a stupid face and saying something hilarious in a weird accent.
So let's be honest – Richard doesn't always make life easy, for himself and for others. He died, in the end, from a disease. Alcoholism dragged Richard and those near him through unspeakably difficult times – and we need to acknowledge that. (And I think we need to offer tribute to Theresa and Alix for supporting Richard in a way that most mortals simply could not).
But we also need to acknowledge that it was Richard's whole character that we loved, a character also – that took that disease and utterly defied it in ways we might not instantly recognise.
Not long ago, Richard lived with us for a couple of years, both in Ely and in Cambridge. And in that time we learned up close one of the qualities of Richard's character that I think is not immediately obvious, but that I think most of you who knew him in later years would affirm.
That is, he had the capacity to listen. I don't mean just listening like most of us do – where you learn to keep your trap shut long enough for the other person to finish speaking before you wade in with what you already know you were going to say anyway. I mean real, genuine, hard-core listening.
Listening, in such a way as to be transformed by your encounter with another person. Listening in such a way as to have your mind changed because you have given yourself properly to the conversation.
Some people call it being open minded – but open-mindedness is just one of those glib virtues I demand from other people if they don't agree with me. Richard hated that kind of fake, gutless, open-mindedness. You only have to look at the comments sections on youtube posts to see in those pointless debates that no one changes their mind about stuff they care about. Changing your mind involves much more than your mind – and it is virtually impossible because it's traumatic. And – Richard and I had plenty of conversations about what the Bible says about that.
Modern people often picture people from the Bible as morally retarded knuckle-scraping iron age grunt monkeys. But ... in all kinds of ways, they understood the human condition better than we do, imprisoned as we are in the centrally-heated, air-conditioned, shrink-wrapped echo-chambers of the modern world.
That's why we chose a Bible reading about baptism. Originally, baptism was not just some religious rite of passage, or a spiritual washing ceremony to con God into thinking you're a little angel. Baptism was a prophetic political act, where you would get slapped down beneath the water of a river – your life was over. It was massively symbolic. And you emerge from a watery grave, to a different way of living. Baptism was a violent act – it was a symbolic death. A traumatic event – that freed you to encounter God, people and the world – in an entirely different way. That – in biblical terms – is the kind of length you go to in order to change your mind. It marks the beginning of the Christian life – because Christianity, whatever else it is, is a post-traumatic belief system. It doesn't make life easy because a life worth living isn't often easy.
Well, the exact same ethical wisdom is expressed in well-known moral literature, 'Fight Club': 'Only after disaster can we be resurrected. It's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything.'
Richard knew trauma of his own. He knew listening wasn't easy – and how hard it is to listen well if you’re over attached to stuff. One of the toughest lessons that Richard learned, in the toughest way, was not being attached to stuff... And because he wasn't over invested in pointless stuff, stuff that you can't take with you when you die, it meant that he was able to listen, to change his mind, to be genuinely impacted by others. It meant that he could have a real conversation with you – and that, in turn, meant that he could be scary to be around. It is scary, because it can make you realise that all kinds of stuff to which we are hopelessly attached – are worthless.
He didn't make life easy for you, and as uncomfortable as that was, it was a good thing. Being around someone who's prepared to listen, really listen can be tough. And according to Bible people, it is that readiness to listen that makes us human.
We live, after all, for only a tragically miniscule nano-fragment of time. And because of that, it's easy to think that when someone dies thirty years before we might have expected, that their lives were cut short. But there are occasions I've spent with Richard – two in particular – in which the intensity and impact of three days, seems to have quality that cannot be measured by the seconds and minutes and hours that passed. [These two occasions are three days we spent in July 1994, getting to know our sister, Jane - along with our cousin Karen, and later Sally. The other was when Theresa and I flew to Malaga on a whim in the impossible hope of finding Richard when he had disappeared, and found him within an hour of landing].
A lot can happen in three days.
Christianity is founded upon the belief that at the centre of history – there were three days that utterly transformed time. They ended with resurrection. And whatever you think of that – it's not just a conjuring trick with bones. For the earliest Christians, it was an event that lent them the courage to be broken and remade, to be baptised, the have their minds transformed by their encounter with otherness.
To believe in the resurrection, is not to jump through mental hoops required to make yourself belief in stuff you know isn't really true. No – and this was the strand of Christian belief to which Richard subscribed – to believe in resurrection, is to live your life with the capacity to be broken and remade. To listen in such a way as to be transformed. To hear in such a way as to be changed. There is no short-cut to the joy, or the hope, or the glimpses of resurrection without those things.
Richard was all too aware of versions of Christianity, which he ridiculed. He knew how to smell cheap, counterfeit, knock of versions of the real thing. Ultimately, Richard knew that:
There is no genuine joy, without real trauma.
There is no genuine hope, without real grief.
There no resurrection, without death.
He didn't make life easy, because a life worth living was never meant to be easy.