I'm slowly reading my way through Philip Yancey's 'Finding God in Unexpected Places'. What a great writer he is. I find more new insights in every one of his books than I've come across in church sermons in the past seven years.
He quotes WH Auden who apparently pointed out that man is the only creature to work, pray and laugh (among other things). Then he quotes CS Lewis, who said somewhere that even in the absence of any other evidence, we could argue the basic essentials of theology from the existence of dirty jokes, and our attitudes towards death.
Why? Well, as Yancey points out, most rude jokes are either about sex or about toilet functions. Two of the most natural processes in the world, which every other type of animal does when necessary, without any fuss, and frequently in public. Why do we humans find it all so embarrassing? Why do people poke fun at those who have difficulty with these natural functions? And indeed, why do we find big noses or beer bellies amusing?
Yancey suggests that deep within us all there must be a hint of our divine origins - the fact that we are spiritual beings cased within flesh and blood. I think he's right. Humour so often comes as a result of a clash between what is expected and a surprise - plays on words, or even slapstick. And yes, we humans who do share a good many features with other animals, are at the same time not animals. So sometimes we laugh because when we do what animals do, or hear of other people doing so, there's an anomaly. We're misfits in the animal world, and we're also misfits in the spiritual world because we do have the need for these natural functions.
As for attitudes towards death: again, what could be more natural than birth and death? It happens all the time, and for animals death usually comes peacefully at the end of their allotted span. Assuming they're not killed by other animals or (more likely) humans. But we spend millions of pounds ensuring that ill or elderly people can prolong their lives by just a few weeks or months. Life is good, and health is good, and I absolutely believe in the sanctity of life. But if someone is 95 and ready to die, why do we expend so much money and energy keeping them alive artificially. For what?
Then there's all the pomp and ceremony that surrounds our dying. Every human society has traditions associated with death - embalming, or burying, or burning. Just look at all the pilgrims who hurried to Rome for the late Pope's funeral. He was a good man, and of course those close to him will grieve, but many of the visitors had never met him; knew him only by repute. He was old, and he was ill. Now he's in heaven, and all the ceremony and mourning can mean nothing to him.
So all this too, Philip Yancey suggests, is an indication of our difficulty in resolving our spirit nature with our fleshly bodies. We somehow feel that life should go on, that death cannot be the end. Even those of us who believe in the afterlife find it difficult to come to terms with someone leaving behind their earthly body - even when they're old and sick. We want eternity on earth, somehow.
What has all this to do with living in Cyprus? I was weeding the end of the garden this morning, yet again. By 10am it was already too warm for me in the shade. And as I weeded (an endless battle, it seems), I wondered about this need to create something colourful and attractive. That's another thing that marks us out as humans, separate from animals. Birds create nests, it's true, but they're practical and warm. Being a thing of beauty is irrelevant to them. When the nest has finished its purpose and the baby birds have flown away, the adult birds get on with life.
My composting and watering the fruit trees makes practical sense: they provide us with tasty fresh food. But what is is about geraniums, and petunias, and above all bougainvillea that I want to nurture them when they're no practical use? Why is ugliness so unappealing, making me pull up nettles - which could be made into tea? Why did I even feel a bit disturbed even about the scarlet geranium growing next to the deep pink bougainvillea?
To me this too is part of my being created in the image of God. He didn't have to create thousands of varieties of plant, in myriad colours, but he did. My need to grow flowers has no practical use; the only reason I can see for it is that in some tiny way I'm reflecting the creative urges of God.