May 9, 2013
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 recognize certain “rites,” such as a first shave, getting the driver’s license, our high school graduations, fraternity hazing, our “first” drink when we turn 21. But these are practiced inconsistently, and most are either not intentional or not edifying. Neither do they set up a boy’s journey into manhood as a particularly sacred or honorable thing.
As a result of growing up in American culture, with rituals the way they are (or aren’t), I now find myself married for almost five years, two months shy of my 30th birthday, expecting my first child in just over a month, working a full-time counseling job with benefits, and holding a masters degree. And most days I still feel like a kid. Put another way, I’ve worked hard to get where I am, but I still don’t feel like I fit in with other grown-up men.
What happened to me? What is happening to boys in our nation who are expected to become “manly” men? Boys like me are raised, hopefully with a father figure, then pushed out into the world with the anomalous directive, “Be a man.” We’re not told clearly when we’ll have achieved that goal. We’re told in the most general terms what being a man is—strong, decisive, godly, head of the household, breadwinner. Then we suddenly find ourselves as fathers responsible for teaching our boys how to be men and our daughters how to be women. But we’ve barely figured it out ourselves.
Meanwhile, our non-Jesus-following brothers continue drinking and drugging and sleeping-around and hazing their way into adulthood.
As the assertive and sometimes demanding fellow that I am, I said to myself, “I want a ritual! I want a clear initiation into the community of Jesus-following-men. Something more meaningful than binge drinking on my 21st birthday or going hunting.”
And what is a ritual without face paint?
That Friday evening, we barbecued (beef for the carnivores, Portobello mushrooms for the vegans); then we had a bonfire. Around the bonfire, we told stories. More precisely, the men who had children outside the womb told stories. Men like me whose first child is still in the womb sat and listened. The idea was to create a space where boys could learn from the men and the young could learn from the old.
I asked each father to share three things: a story about being a father, a piece of wisdom, and a blessing over the gathered community of fathers. Beginning with the oldest father (with a child of 25), concluding with the most recent father (with an infant of 10 days). They all had stories about their kids—stories of grace. Because good fathering is an act of grace, the father’s grace to the child because of God’s grace to the father.
When you get men together telling stories about God’s grace, amazing things happen. The group becomes a sacred space where it’s okay to not be perfect. It’s okay to fail and freak out and not know all the answers. It’s okay because you know you’re not alone. Every other father around the fire has asked your questions, shared your fears. They are all wearing face paint, same as you. You all look crazy together.
I wanted to experience the tribal community dynamic of living and working and sharing hardship and prosperity with each other. Men being completely open about their lives with each other, each man’s life a story of God’s patience and grace. And I discovered that every other man appreciated that tribal community just as much. Even with the face paint.
At the end of the night, the fathers laid hands on the new and expecting fathers and prayed more blessings over us. The community recognized us as fathers, as grown men, as fully functional members of the tribe.
My original plan was to also have one of the fathers paint my face as an even more tangible expression of initiation. If we have new fathers next year, we’ll do the ritual that way.
We’ll do the ritual again because the event was a good thing. And because men need reminders that God is full of grace and that they are not alone.
The blessing spoken by the oldest father among us was also the most concise. “You’re not alone,” he said. And we all rejoiced.
I organized this ritual as an initiation into fatherhood, but I very much would have liked something to look forward to 10 years ago when I left my teens and first had to act like a man. What if the church could offer boys a tangible and meaningful initiation into manhood?
Right now the non-church world holds the most popular image of manhood and coming-of-age rituals. They say you become a man by amassing wealth and power, maybe through violence, or maybe by being the best at satisfying your own carnal needs. Men are strong, stolid, invulnerable, and take what they want. This is the culture in which our boys are growing up. Even if they grow up in church, they have to work through the world’s values and rituals of manhood. If no one says anything, they could end up as men no different than those who don’t know God.
But isn’t this is the church’s opportunity? We can define masculinity in God’s image, apart from broken cultural expectations that come from both inside and outside the Church. We can create coming-of-age rituals that are edifying. We can minister to fathers and sons, connect younger men with older mentors, or at the very least have an annual bonfire to celebrate fathers and role models. We who have relationship with the God-Man, Jesus Christ, have an opportunity to step into the lives of older boys becoming men and show them how to be compassionate, live with integrity, have good relationships, and bring about life in others. We can show our boys how to be life-giving men who love God.
So light the fire, and grab some paint. Let’s not miss this opportunity.
Rhys Pasimio is a writer and dual-diagnosis counselor in Portland, Oregon. He volunteers at the Sexual Minority Youth Resource Center and is working on his first novel. He blogs at Journey of Peace.