There are many things I enjoy about the culture of the Dinka people in South Sudan. Not everything is great, but the free-flowing culture that emphasizes relationship over task seems to suit me well. It has allowed deep relationships that I highly value to form.
One of the more curious nuances of culture there involves the chair.
Chairs, in my view, are undervalued here in the States. I suppose it is because we have so many of them. In my house, which is by no means large, I can count nine chairs, one couch, and two benches. This is seating for 18 people, and there are only two of us who live there.
In South Sudan chairs are not nearly as plentiful. I was reminded of this twice while we were in country. First, in the town of Aweil, as some 300 gathered to watch the Jesus film and hear some preaching, I noticed there were only four chairs to accommodate all of those in attendance. Then later in the week, as we traveled with the commissioner of the county where we work, he shared a request for four chairs. He had been recently given the post of commissioner, but was given no budget and no chairs for conducting a meeting. (We were happy to fulfill this $50 request, even throwing in a table, thinking it would help ensure further cooperation with him! )
It is great fun to watch the process of who receives the privilege of a chair and the placement of that chair in any particular gathering. I am always reminded of New Testament instruction about seating.
Remember that? Jesus told the disciples: Don't embarrass yourself by taking a seat that doesn't belong to you and is essentially beyond your station in life. And James asks the people, "Why are you giving the seats to all the rich people?" Interesting, he is implying that their evaluation of importance is based on the wrong things. We even see the disciples argue over who will be seated at the right hand of Jesus, the place of authority, for eternity.
The Dinka culture continues to reflect the importance given to seating. Much of it is expressed in who gets a chair. For example, when we arrived to the showing of the film in Aweil, we were ushered, as always, to a chair placed front and center as the other 300 people stood to watch the film.
I am not so ego driven that I have to be one of those who gets a chair. In fact, at points, I have even made the claim that after my long trip to see them I am tired of sitting and would prefer to stand. They are happy to let me stand, but even then no one will sit in the chair. When I have asked about this, the simple response is, "Of course no one will sit in the chair. It is your chair!"
I have learned to just go ahead and sit in the chair. After all, after 50 showings of the Jesus film in the Dinka language, standing with jet lag for that two hours is difficult for a westerner who has 18 seats in his house.
What I'm suggesting here, is that there is something of Dinka culture and Dinka church culture that I find significantly lacking in even Christ-believing culture in the west: honor.
Maybe it is because I am "aging" but I am surprised over and over how little honor exists among us. I see this phenomenon occurring from both directions. A lack of honor by those younger who in reality don't have all the answers. And, a lack of honor by those older who are often seated in positions of authority and exercise it. Authority need not always be exercised. In fact, sometimes wisdom would suggest otherwise.
I woke up one night while in South Sudan with an interest to read in 1st Kings about the kings who followed Solomon. This is the point in Israel's history where the kingdom split. As I read, I began to see something interesting. The causes of the kingdom dividing, I am sure, were multiple. However, In Chapter 12, we see a presenting issue. Rehoboam, Solomon's son, is approached by a marginalized group of people. Their request is for leniency. Rehoboam consults the elders—those who have helped his father rule effectively for many years. Their counsel is to grant this request for leniency.
In his youthfulness, Rehoboam decides also to seek the counsel of "his boys"—the guys he had grown up with. In their arrogance, they advise him in the opposite direction, appealing to Rehoboam to recognize his superior strength and wisdom when compared to that of his father. In his arrogance, Rehoboam rashly takes the council of "his boys."
Arrogance provides no room for honor. Pride has been the downfall of many. The fruit of Rehoboam's decision is significant. We are told, "So, Israel departed." Rehoboam loses rule over 10 of the tribes of Israel and the kingdom is divided.
The issue of lack of honor is a major one in the body of Christ these days. The arrogance that allows for it has caused a lot of division and strife. I know because I have been on both sides of this equation. I am simply suggesting that many times we need to mimic the Dinka and "offer a chair." Jesus was pretty clear on this as He addresses those who follow Him. "It is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest."
Sometimes the coolest thing in missions is that you receive more than you offer, finding yourself in a posture of learning rather than on a platform teaching.