A few years ago I spent a weekend at JPUSA, the community of Christians in Chicago who live together in the old Chelsea Hotel and call themselves “Jesus People.” And during my time there, I saw a lot of skulls.
Skulls adorn the hallways, the door frames, and the forearms of the people who inhabit them. Five doors down from my room there was an unapologetic mural of a skeleton, squarely behind a baby gate and next to a sign that warned in loud purple Crayola, “Nursing Urijiah! Piz come back. ” All over the community, there were instances of this odd juxtaposition of life and death.
I wondered if the skulls were some kind of talisman, like some cultures have to ward off evil spirits, but when I asked one of the women on staff about their significance, she laughed. “Well,” she said, “People here are kind of obsessed with death.”
She explained to me, “The skulls and skeletons are representative of the knowledge that there’s more. We anticipate death, in a way, because we are eager for our new bodies and the new life ahead with Christ. We are living in a dichotomy between this world and the next, and we are very aware of that.” So there are skulls: a reminder of our mortal decay. She also told me that people at JPUSA tend to live in the awareness that, in the city, they are surrounded by the living dead. They are among the spiritually destitute and dying.
I’ve often felt this restlessness, of living in the cracks between Eden and Heaven, which some call the age of the in-between, the already-not-yet of the kingdom. It can be exasperating: is the kingdom here, or is it to come? Christ has come into our world and has promised victory over sin and death, but we still live under its affects while we wait for His return. And it can make us impatient in the waiting, while we see the world around us in such need of redemption. We were created for eternal life, to bear divine image and have a face-to-face relationship with our Maker, but sin ruptured this paradise and now we live in the imbalance, caught between what was supposed to be and what is now utterly broken. Even the earth is a victim of this tension, “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22). Even the earth and the roots of mountains straddle this gap between the kingdoms.
There is a dichotomy at hand. We are finite beings with eternal life or death at stake. Perhaps the reminder of our mortal frame, whether skulls and bones or just knowing that there is more to come, can lend urgency to our days to live well, to reach out to the dying, and to eagerly await the life ahead.
Stephanie S. Smith graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Communications and Women’s Ministry, which she now puts to work freelancing as a book publicist and writer through her business, (In)dialogue Communications, at www.stephaniessmith.com. After living in Chicago for four years, traveling to Amsterdam for a spell, and then moving back home to Baltimore to plan a wedding, she now lives with her husband in Upstate New York where they make novice attempts at home renovation in their 1930s bungalow. She writes for www.startmarriageright.com and manages Moody Publishers’ blog, www.insidepages.net.