The boy laughed out loud as I read to him. His mother had fallen asleep while listening, but his eyes were wide as I turned the pages of Mark Twain’s classic tale of childhood rebellion. I chuckled, too, at the boy and at the book. Because Twain was so deeply in tune with the yearning we all have to be free of encumbrances, to be our own boy or girl, to break the rules that others have been laying on us. I should have known after the Preface, in which a winking Twain offered the following disclaimer: “Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves. . .”
Reading the book, I was reminded of what I once was myself, but I was reminded of more than that: I was reminded of who we all are, of who our church is, and of who we might still become depending on our interpretation of the rules. This is, in part, because there is so much religion in Mark Twain’s book. It is offered from a child’s point of view and is therefore very funny. Tom Sawyer is forced to go to church and, with it, to go against his nature somehow before meeting Huck Finn, who is not forced and seems rather fancy free. Consider the contrast.
In order to prepare for church, Tom is given a basin of water and sent outside to wash himself. He promptly pours it out and returns to the house, pretending to dry his face. He is caught in the act and forced to wash again and readers can imagine him scowling and frowning at the unpleasantness of it all. He put on a suit and a straw hat and, according to Twain, “looked exceedingly improved and uncomfortable.” Being so clean “galled him,” and we are left to picture the boy with his hair brushed and his shined shoes marched into church where he would sit stiffly in the pews. Incidentally, the minister “droned along monotonously” while Tom fished his pockets and found a beetle with which to engage himself.
Anyone who has ever been a child in church knows exactly what this feels like. The bath. The church clothes. The endless talking of grown-ups and the shushing. Stop wiggling. Stop kicking the pew. Stop giggling or burping or doing other things that come naturally to you. So as I read I got the joke as well as my own boy did. We all remember the religious world of rules that we were ushered into. And we all remember waiting for the Benediction or the Postlude so we could bolt from the pews and get some fresh air. Yet after reading and laughing for a while, we reached a passage that quieted us. We read it twice it was so good. And we wondered at the introduction of Huck Finn.
In contrast to Tom’s experience, Huck is described as something of a boy Whitman. His life is pure poetry; an evasion of every rule. Here is the description of him from Chapter Six when he is first introduced:
Huckleberry came and went, at his own free will. He slept on door-steps in fine weather, and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or to call any being master or obey anybody; he could go fishing or swimming when and where he chose, and stay as long as it suited him; nobody forbade him to fight; he could sit up as late as he pleased; he was always the first boy that went barefoot in the spring and the last to resume leather in the fall; he never had to wash, nor put on clean clothes; he could swear wonderfully. In a word, everything that goes to make life precious, that boy had.
I don’t know whose eyes were wider when we read that passage. He came and went at his own free will. He didn’t have to follow the rules like other children. He was free of all that and, therefore, the luckiest seeming boy in the world. All the other kids looked up to him. Why wouldn’t they? It’s a beautiful description of a childlike longing. To not go to school or church or be told what to do by anybody. Or, to put it into our earliest language, to not have anybody be the boss of us. On some level, we all long for that. We wish that we weren’t so constrained. We wish that we weren’t so scheduled. We wish that we weren’t so predictable or conventional. We wish we were different. But does being different require breaking all the rules?
It’s a good question to ask in a progressive Christian church because being progressive means putting our faith into practice in some different ways. Our rules are not the same as other churches’ rules. We welcome everyone, especially those who have not felt welcome other places. We invite everyone into full participation, membership, and leadership. We share communion with everyone and join with others working for justice in our community. These are rules of a kind, though they are meant to free us rather than hold us back. But it is also good to ask this question in our particular church, which was founded on the idea of dissent. In the 17th Century, when South Carolina was an Anglican colony with a state-sponsored church, the Independent Meeting House (which was us) was founded for all those who dissented or did not belong to the state church or follow its particular rules. Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Huguenots, and many others came here. And while the services were long and formal enough to be Tom Sawyer’s nightmare, there must have been a unique spirit in an early American church that was fairly ecumenical and inclusive for the time. Over time we became more inclusive, especially toward women, people of color, and sisters and brothers of every sexual orientation and identity. But somewhere in our DNA was the idea of dissent, which did have to do with bending the rules or even opting out of them. And sometimes I think that even though we come here dressed like Tom Sawyer, hair combed and shoes shined, we’ve got more than a little Huck Finn inside, more than a little longing to kick off our shoes and roam away, no one telling us what to do.
Of course, we’re not the first ones to have an iconoclastic streak. The founder of our faith was a wanderer. He moved from town to town, teaching those who would gather, rarely holding court in the formal temple setting and more often sitting by the lake, lying on a hillside, or standing by a well. Jesus had inherited the rules of religion, but he hadn’t been content just to take them as a package. Rather, he wanted to get at the spirit of them, the why that was meant to infuse the how. And in Matthew Chapter Five we have a series of couplets attributed to Jesus that show him reinterpreting the rules. You have heard it said, goes the refrain, but I say to you. . .
What follows is more radical than Huck Finn following no rules; it is an invitation for each of us to follow the rules in a wilder fashion than any of us might have imagined before. You have heard it said that you should not kill, Jesus taught. But I say that even anger is bad enough. You have heard not to commit adultery. But I say lust in your heart and your eye is the same thing. You have heard not to break an oath. But I say swearing anything is false. You have heard an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say turn the other cheek. You have heard love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. These are some of the most beautiful wisdom teachings of Jesus, meant to haunt us for a lifetime. And many of us have been haunted by them, our imaginations kindled as if we were children again. It would be a near perfect passage if not for the couplet I left out: the one about divorce.
In a jarring departure, there is the inclusion of a teaching that you have heard it said not to divorce except on certain grounds. But I say that anyone who marries a divorced person is like a philanderer. Scholars have bent over backwards trying to interpret this, the best they can do seeming to be an unsatisfying explanation that it’s somehow not as bad as it sounds or that there’s a fairly strong idea that perhaps this is not an authentic saying of Jesus but something passed down by the Matthean community. But we might say, as a progressive church, that it is possible that Jesus did say this and that we don’t actually agree with him. We interpret this in the light of our own context and experience, and in the light of the larger body of his teachings, and say you have heard it said, but we say something else. Because we say that some marriages do come to an end and that is part of life. And remarriages are good and right and basically lovely. We also say, because one of our own rules is honest speech, that these two verses are confusing. We are not completely sure what is going on here, but we are sure that even as we mine our sacred stories for poetry and inspiration, we come across lines that we question, stories that we doubt, and teachings from which we dissent. Being followers of Jesus does not mean that we agree with every single word attributed to him. Being followers of Jesus does not mean that he is always the boss of us. I say that with a smile because somehow I think he would not judge. After all, he is the one who encouraged us to come as children. And he is the one who taught us the compassionate ideal.
Perhaps no one has picked up on this more clearly than Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia. In his book, Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals, Edmundson focuses on three classic ideals of the ancient world: courage, contemplation, and compassion. Homer and Plato are his exemplars of courage and contemplation, but when it comes to compassion he spends a great deal of time on Jesus. “Compassion is the core of Jesus’ ministry,” Edmundson writes. “Compassion is the new ideal, the good news that Jesus brings, displacing the ethos of justice that dominates [before]. . .” We can hear this in Matthew’s couplets, even the confusing one about divorce. You have heard it said, but I say. . . There is a movement from the law as a heartless rule to the spirit as a heartfelt practice. Do not be angry or lustful. Do not swear oaths. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Pray for everyone. Free yourself from the rules and be transformed by a new practice. Because the practice of our faith isn’t reading the lines and deciding whether we agree or disagree any more than it is combing our hair and putting on our shined shoes; the practice of our faith is trying it out, living in such a way that our spirit shines through, the childlike dreams we still have of making a place where everyone can be who they really are, loved and accepted no matter what. Edmundson is on to this, and in a beautiful passage, he comes very close to the heart of Christianity. Who is my neighbor? he asks.
Every man is my neighbor. Every woman is my neighbor. This is the central teaching of Jesus, and though it is not an easy teaching to put into practice. . .it may confer on living men and women a sense of wholeness, presence, and even joy. No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all that lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.
There is freedom in a rule like that. The rule of seeing our interconnectedness and placing our meaning there. It’s a dissenting rule, really. Not a rule that draws lines to leave others out, but a rule that erases lines to invite others and all things in. It’s not Tom Sawyer’s rule of being forced into an unnatural role on Sunday mornings. But it’s also not Huck Finn’s rule of no rules at all. It is rather the rule of the compassionate ideal, sown in our hearts by an itinerant wisdom teacher and by our own boyish and girlish longings.
With a bit of luck or maybe with a bit of grace we can follow that rule into a future that looks bright for our meeting house full of dissenters. If we do it right, then we may read Matthew just like we read Mark Twain, laughing out loud, reminded of what we once were and still could be. . .
 Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), 5.
 Ibid., 31, 40.
 Ibid., 46.
 Joanne Calhoun, The Circular Church: Three Centuries of Charleston History (Charleston: The History Press, 2008), 13-14.
 Mark Edmundson, Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 8.