The Nightmare Before Christmas is a wickedly delightful fantasy, filled with clever creativity and imagination, and provides a wonderful metaphor for ministry.
Consider Jack, the Pumpkin King, and the main character of the movie. He is not the mayor of Halloween Town, but he clearly sets the tone there. He is Halloween. Jack is wonderfully creepy, and you can’t help but be drawn by his energy and by the way he obviously flourishes in his role as the undisputed king of all things nasty, scary, and generally horrific to think about.
But it is a farce. Just under the surface, Jack is in pain. His energy and enthusiasm in performing his annual Halloweeny duties are shallow, and quickly evaporate as he moves out of the sight of the other residents of Halloween Town. He wonders if there might be something more, lamenting, “Oh, somewhere deep inside of these bones an emptiness began to grow. There's something out there, far from my home, a longing that I've never known.” Jack is being called.
He wanders, searching, through the wilderness until he comes to the magical entrance to Christmas Town, where he is completely captivated by what he experiences. Sliding into town he encounters light, joy, snow, laughter, music, the smell of cakes and pies – all of this gets hold of Jack and penetrates his soul. Simply put, it brings him to life. This glimpse of what might be is in such sharp contrast to what his own experience has been, his immediate response is to bring it all back home with him, to share with Halloween Town. Having glimpsed what could be, he is filled with a passion to realize it in his own world.
But it won’t be as easy as that, will it Jack? He has an awkward, difficult time trying to articulate the vision to the people of Halloween Town. They seem hopelessly caught in their own experience, and cannot seem to understand what exactly it is that is so appealing to Jack about this fantastic place he is trying to describe. For example, when Jack talks about hanging a stocking on the wall, one asks, “Does it still have a foot?” They simply do not, or maybe cannot, understand. Something about “stiff-necked people” comes to mind, or maybe a “faithless generation.”
And then – the unthinkable happens. Jack sells out. After trying once more, “Everyone, please now, not so fast. There’s something here that you don't quite grasp,” as an aside to the audience, he whispers, “Well, I may as well give them what they want.”
NO, Jack, NO! you want to cry out, Don’t give up! Keep the vision out there, man! But it doesn’t happen. He compromises his glimpse of Christmas Town, and allows Halloween Town values and expectations to infiltrate that beautiful, powerful, wonderful vision of what might be. Why, Jack? Where did that sense of wonder and awe go so quickly? What happened to the joy, the new life, the passion?
In order to “give them what they want,” Jack settles for a “Halloweenified” version of Christmas that is just awful - “Snakes and mice get wrapped up so nice, with spiders legs and pretty bows” – and it all goes horribly, horribly wrong. It looks kind of like Christmas, but it isn’t. Jack dresses up like Santa, but his tall and impossibly skinny body just isn’t right. The wreath he hangs comes to life and attacks the family. The reindeer are skeletons. It is an unsettling phenomenon that is neither Christmas nor Halloween, but something else altogether, and there is nothing right about it.
And to add one more level of madness to the story: Jack buys into it. Flying through the air in the sham sleigh, he allows himself to be overtaken by the Halloweenified Christmas and seems to forget everything that has led him to this point. He forgets the vision, and what’s more, he substitutes the compromised vision for the real one. It’s one thing to aim for a target and not quite hit it, but Jack redefines the target altogether. Jack’s target is whatever he happens to be hitting at the moment. In a mocking caricature of the true joy he knew in Christmas Town, he cackles, “I don't believe what's happening to me. My hopes, my dreams, my fantasies. Hee, hee, hee, hee!” But these are not really his hopes and dreams – and we all know that. His hopes and dreams are nowhere in sight.
Eventually, Jack himself realizes it and moans a lament, “What have I done? What have I done? How could I be so blind? All is lost, where was I? Spoiled all, spoiled all. Everything's gone all wrong.” Although he never meant to do harm, when he compromised the Christmas Town vision to the standards, norms, and expectations of Halloween Town, he has indeed done great damage. Jack himself never figures out exactly why everything went wrong, but he desperately wants to make things right again. He does so by freeing Santa Claus from the lair of the Oogey Boogey Man, and Santa himself goes off to set things all aright again, leaving Jack in Halloween Town to live as the Pumpkin King, which is really all he ever was anyway.
But things are different in Halloween Town. It is snowing. And the creatures take up Jack’s wondering question, “What’s this?” as they marvel at this new thing showering down upon them, while Jack gazes at the stars with his dearest friend, Sally, who has a complicated story of her own going on. The citizens of Halloween Town wonder, “What’s this? Why it’s completely new. Must be a Christmas thing.” It seems that somehow, in spite of all that has gone wrong, there is a tiny bit of Christmas Town working its way into Halloween Town, after all.
It’s all there – the real life, the calling, the wilderness, the glimpse, the proclamation, the misunderstanding, the sell out, the compromise, the sham, the buy in, the collapse, the repentance, the renewal, the real life transformed – sounds like ministry to me.
In my next post I hope to draw out those parallels with a little more intentionality. In the meantime, what do you think? Any resonance here?