For the past twenty years, I have focused on a mission statement given me one morning in the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles by my guide and mentor, Peter Drucker. He said, after eight years of working together, “It is your mission to work on transforming the latent energy of American Christianity into active energy.” That mission statement has served me well but it is becoming increasingly obsolete as the United States is no longer the center of the world.
Let me give you two examples from just this past two weeks. This past Wednesday I received an email titled “Greetings from Korea.” The writer described himself as a senior researcher of a Christian Research and Education organization in Seoul, Korea. He said, “For the last several years, (a colleague and I) have been studying theological topics closely related to Halftime. We have read all of your books from Halftime to Finishing Well and ever since then been constantly teaching and preaching their main ideas in different colleges and churches.
“We think our ministry's mission and goals correspond with yours and this vocational similarity encourages us to contact you to see if there is any possibility of our ministry to be connected with yours in one form or another. Mr. Buford, we don't just appreciate your past achievements and works but we also look forward to what your unceasing commitment would bring in the future.”
The writer did his PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary in Christian Ethics with particular focus on economic life and culture. He was joined in his request by the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Seoul that has 30,000 members.
The writer continued, “(Both of us) share a common view that the Korean Christian community as well as Korean society in general are in much need of Halftime ministry. As you may understand, Korea has accomplished a very compressed form of economic growth over the last forty years. But rapid economic growth has been accompanied by a highly competitive and success-driven culture.”
Just a week earlier I had received a similar email from a man from Ghana. The writer had followed an eighteen year career in the corporate world by starting what he called a small Christian Retreat Centre as his success to significance transition. He said, “I have for some seven years now had this strong desire to help people move from the small mindset of 'me, myself and I' disease that plagues most successful Africans largely because of where we are coming from. As a result, Africa has a stunted growth in the face of a huge unimaginable potential and fortune.” He, too, desires a working relationship with our Halftime group.
What's going on here? Success is spreading around the world rapidly. It is obvious that the United States is not going to be the only big dog on the block anymore. We may be the biggest military power, but most indications are that places like Singapore, Brazil, and other previously “third world” powers are breeding a class of highly successful entrepreneurs. A large and growing number of people across the world are going to be much better off in terms of financial capacity than anybody in history has ever seen. But, of course, they face the same challenges of money vs. meaning that we are so familiar with in the work of Halftime.
Wealth and recognition bring with it a host of other issues, hubris being somewhere near the top of the list. Charles Dickens wrote in the eighteenth century, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” That is probably a pretty good description of our situation as well. The best of times because so many more people have the advantages of money and social mobility; the worst of times for prosperous people (the top 20%) because many of them begin to live for themselves lives of pleasure, idleness, and running up the score as fast and as long as the law will permit. I confess to being a recovering member of that class though I, thank God, balanced my intense competitive desire with other goals (marriage and family, serving God by serving others).
Others, wiser than I, saw the danger for the US culture as we entered the 1980's. Listen to what Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his now-famous Commencement speech to Harvard University graduates in the spring of 1978, “I hope that no one present will suspect me of offering my personal criticism of the Western system – to present socialism as an alternative. Having experienced socialism, I certainly will not speak for it…But should someone ask me whether I could indicate the West such as it is today as a model…frankly I would have to answer negatively.” He goes on to say that in the West he sees spiritual exhaustion, materialism, manipulation of the law, and misuses of freedom. “All the glorified technological achievements of progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the 20th century's moral poverty which no one could imagine even as late as the 19th century. Only voluntary inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.”
Solzhenitsyn's Address stirred up all manner of controversy, but in retrospect both Dickens and Solzhenitsyn seem to be a good prediction of the both/and time we are living in right now.
Hear this from my friend, Patrick Morley, now a prominent author, who talks about his former life, “My unspoken credo was 'money will solve my problems and success will make me happy.' I would set a goal, work hard, meet the goal, and then experience euphoria. But two weeks later, the good feeling was gone, and I would have to set a new goal. The new goal, of course, always had to be bigger, brighter, faster, or more expensive than the one before.
“But all those met goals became a string of hollow victories increasingly unable to deliver the fulfillment I craved. I had a disease they might call success sickness. It is the disease of always wanting more but never being happy when we got it. I was miserable. And angry.”
As you can tell from the emails at the beginning of this museletter, this success sickness is a disease people are beginning to be concerned about around the world. It is a pursuit that squeezes God out of the equation in many cases. Life begins to go on autopilot. Solzenitzen sums up, “Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no spirit above him? Is it right that man's life and society's activities should be ruled by material expansion above all? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our integral spiritual life?”
That seems to be a question increasingly being faced in Korea, Ghana and the now developing Third World. I guess I need to expand my now obsolete mission statement. What do you think?
Solzenitzen's Harvard Address (www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles/SolzhenitsynHarvard.php)
“The Great Divorce” by David Brooks, NYT, January 31, 2012. Brooks says, “I'll be shocked if there is another book this year as important as Charles Murray's Coming Apart. I'll be shocked if there's another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society. Murray's basic argument is not new, that America is dividing into a two-caste society.
Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray (Jan 31, 2012). A great read.
Man Alive: Transforming Your Seven Primal Needs into a Powerful Spiritual Life, by Patrick Morley (Jan 17, 2012).
How The Mighty Fall, by Jim Collins (May 19, 2009). The five stages of decline. Stage 1: Hubris Born of Success.
And last, my all time favorite Super Bowl commercial, “Halftime in America” by Clint Eastwood.