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The Painted Men

The church can be a place for the life rituals we need but don't have.

"What's with the face paint?"

I got the question a dozen times from the men in my church. It was a Friday evening in spring. They stood around a fire, bemused and slightly nervous as I painted black and red stripes on their cheeks and noses.

"In some cultures," I said, "the men carve a scar in their arm for every man they kill. Some high school guys put a notch in their belt for every girl they sleep with. I'm putting a stripe on your face for every child you have." One color for children outside the womb, a different color for pre-borns.

Their expressions were not so nervous after that.

Most cultures worldwide practice rites-of-passage and coming of age rituals. The Bar Mitzvah. The Masai lion hunt. Poy Sang Long in Burma. The Hispanic Quinceañera. The Aboriginal walkabout. Sheijin Shiki in Japan. The Amish Rumspringa. A Native American vision quest. Vanuatu land diving. Hamar cow jumping. You get the point.

In America, though, the transition from child to adult is much more ambiguous. We ...

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