“We need a spiritual compass to point the way, give us direction, guide us in our decision-making and help us make the right choices in life.” Photo:Shutterstock
A few weeks before Christmas Mark Madoff woke up in his New York apartment at four a.m. and crept past the bedroom of his two-year-old son, Nick. He sent an email to his wife, Stephanie, who was in Florida with their other child, saying, “Please send someone to take care of Nick.” He followed up with another message a few minutes later, which said only, “I love you.”
Stephanie knew there was something wrong, especially when Mark did not answer her phone calls. She called her stepfather, who went to the apartment, where he found Mark dead. He had committed suicide, with his son still sleeping in the other room.
Mark Madoff was never accused of any wrongdoing. He was never charged with any crime. He claimed he was innocent. But sadly, he was the son of Bernie Madoff, the most notorious swindler in all history. While Mark was ending his life, Bernie was serving a 150-year prison sentence for a $50 billion Ponzi scheme. Of all his many crimes, the greatest by far was not the money he stole or the clients he betrayed. It was what he did to his family. As Steve Maich, publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian Business put it, “They would share in his guilt, even if they had no knowledge of the crime.”
Bernie Madoff’s life was a lie. His life was built on sand without any solid foundation. He was not only a thief, but a miserable father, who hurt the very ones he claimed to love.
Let me ask you something: what is your foundation for living? We all need a foundation on which to build our lives, don’t we? We need a spiritual compass to point the way, give us direction, guide us in our decision-making and help us make the right choices in life.
Some foundations do not endure, but we are free to choose them. We can build a life on greed and deception, as Bernie Madoff did. We can build it on lust for power or fame. We can build it on hedonism or pleasure. The list of possible foundations is unending.
Throughout the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, occasionally spies from Russia defected. The CIA came up with an acronym to describe the four top reasons why a Russian spy might defect to the West. The acronym was MICE, which stood for Money, Ideology, Compromise and Ego. Any one of these things might motivate an agent to sell out his country.
Recently we witnessed the downfall of two very prominent personalities. Dominick Strauss-Kahn was the head of the International Monetary Fund and a possible future president of France. He had money, power and fame—what more could he want? Yet he was arrested for sexual assault against a maid in his $3,000 per night hotel room. After his arrest, other women told about unwelcomed sexual advances and even assaults by Mr. Strauss-Kahn. While there is a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, the arrest and now felony charges by a grand jury have already taken their toll on this man. He is no longer head of the IMF, and he is likely no longer a presidential contender. The shame and disgrace are beyond calculation.
We also learned recently that all is not well in Camelot. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former governor of California, a highly paid and highly popular movie star, married to the equally popular and highly respected Maria Shriver of the Kennedy family, fathered a child with his maid and had sex with her regularly in his home while his wife was away, only to have the whole sordid affair explode on him, destroying his marriage, devastating his children and ruining his reputation.
And then there is Charlie Sheen, a gifted actor who is self-destructing right before our eyes. A Globe and Mail columnist referred to Charlie Sheen as “the relentless one-man circus (or should that be horror show?).” He was one of the highest paid actors on television as the star of Two and a Half Men until he got fired last month. Charlie Sheen’s foundation for living is crashing all around him.
Think of it: Bernie Madoff, Dominick Strauss-Kahn, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charlie Sheen. They had it all, but they lived on empty. None of them had the kind of foundation that can get you through the struggles and temptations that inevitably come our way. They kept chasing the wrong things in life, and eventually the consequences of their choices caught up with them. Wise people understand that some foundations cannot endure. All foundations are not created equal.
The recent death of Osama bin Laden brought to mind several conversations I had with people when I ministered in northern New Jersey. They shared with me their experiences of being in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. It was a beautiful Tuesday morning. No one riding the commuter train from New Jersey to New York could possibly have imagined what was about to happen. It was just another workday. For the investment bankers, brokers and traders on Wall Street, it was another day to make money.
Howard Lutnick was one of those people. He was the CEO of the investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald, and business was good. But on September 11, when that first plane crashed into the tower of the World Trade Center, 657 employees of Cantor Fitzgerald were killed—everyone who was in the office. The only reason Howard Lutnick was not there that morning was because he had been delayed in taking his son to school.
When the extent of the tragedy became known, Howard Lutnick’s life changed. He made a public commitment to the families of his deceased employees that Cantor Fitzgerald would provide health coverage for the next ten years. He committed 25 per cent of Cantor’s profits for the next five years to the families of those killed in the attack. He established scholarships for every single child of deceased employees to insure they could afford to attend college.
After 9/11, Howard Lutnick realized that making money wasn’t a very solid foundation for living. There had to be something more, something better. Not all foundations are equal. You and I are free to choose any foundation we like. We can make financial security the foundation on which we build our lives. We can make the esteem of our family and friends the foundation. Both are worthy goals. However, only one foundation will not fail. That foundation is Jesus Christ.
Listen to the words of Peter: “Come to him, a living stone…chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: ‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame’ ” (1 Peter 2:4−6).
Any good architect in Jesus’ day could tell you that the cornerstone is the most essential piece of a building’s foundation. The cornerstone provides the strength on which to build everything else. The writer of the First Letter of Peter is saying that Christ is the only enduring foundation for a satisfying and rewarding life. Christ is our foundation for living. Hold on to Christ and you will find eternal security, even amidst life’s turbulence and unpredictability. Hold on to Christ and you can resist the temptations that come your way. Hold on to Christ and you can live the abundant, grace-filled life to which God calls all of us.
Some words stay with us throughout our entire life. That has been my experience. When I was on retreat, preparing to be ordained a priest in the diocese of Quebec, the retreat director, Canon Ed Vaughan, took me aside and gave me this advice: “Some day, Gary, your life is going to crash and all your self-confidence is going to crumble. I don’t know when and I don’t know how, but it will happen, trust me, just as it happens to almost every human being at some point in their lives. And when it does happen to you, remember one thing: Christ is your sure foundation. Focus on Christ, hang on to Christ, depend on Christ, lean on Christ, and you will get through whatever life throws your way.”
After hearing those words, I have never been able to listen or sing the hymn "Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation" without choking up. I know it to be true. Things happened that I didn’t expect. Failure, disappointment and heartbreak have come my way. There are times when I have had to struggle with some very tough choices.
Today I look back and marvel how I got through it all, but one thing I know: I could not have gotten through any of it, except for Jesus. He is the only sure foundation for your life and mine. Trust him. Believe in him. Follow him. Commit yourself to him. He will not disappoint.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.