Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Christian for the Ages

One of my all time favorite movies with a Christian theme is the 1981 film entitled 'Chariots of Fire' a story about two runners, one a Jewish Englishman named Harold Abrams, one a Scottish Evangelical named Eric Liddle who both did remarkable things at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. NBC and Mary Carillo this afternoon did a wonderful tribute to Liddle, which if you can find on their website you should watch it. What Carillo rightly points out, is that Liddle was the first athlete born in China (of missionary parents in 1902) to win a gold medal at any Olympics.

Eric Liddle lived a short life (1902-45), but the importance of a life cannot be measured in its quantity, rather it must be measured in its quality, and as Carillo movingly said, "most athletes come to the games desiring to be great and do great, Eric Liddle came to the Paris Olympics desiring to be good, and to do good." Liddle famously refused to run in the race that was his speciality because the heat was on Sunday, and he was a strict Scottish sabbitarian. Even the pleas from the royal family went on deaf ears. This was a great blow to Britain recovering from WWI as Liddle was undoubtedly the best in the world in 100M. But his old rival whom he had beaten in that very distance before, Harold Abrams, ran and won the race for Great Britain. Liddle however was persuaded to run the 400 meters. As his daughter Patrica Russell tells the story, the thing was he ran it as if it was the 100 meters. He ran it like an all out sprint, smashing the world record, winning by a comfortable margin. There is a famous line in the movie 'Chariots of Fire' where Eric's sister is arguing with him about his going to Paris instead of going instantly to the mission field in China. Eric's response was memorable, "God has made me to be a missionary, aye, but he has made me fast, and when I run, I feel God's pleasure". I know exactly what he means, having been a runner most of my life. When I ran the Boston Marathon in 1993 on an unusually hot muggy day in April, I came down to the last few miles on fumes, and kept saying to myself "are you running with me Jesus", "are you running with me".

Eric Liddle after the Paris Olympics did return to the country of his birth, China, where he was a missionary. Unfortunately, China was invaded by Japan, and Liddle had to send his family home to Canada (his wife was Canadian), and he himself ended up in a concentration camp with many others 300 miles south of Beijing. In the camp he pastored and taught and loved his fellow inmates. In the Carillo piece, one of the interees said that Liddle taught him that he must pray for the Japanese who had done this to them, for the NT says 'pray for those who persecute you'. Liddle was a genuinely Christian person from start to finish in his 43 years of life. Only six months before the liberation of China by the Allies in 1945, Eric Liddle became suddenly ill, and then died. He had a massive brain tumor. To this day, the Chinese do not erect monuments to foreigners on their soil, but they made an exception for an exceptional man who called two nations his home. Still today you can see the monument erected with an English script and a cross on it honoring Eric Liddle for his good work in China.

Though what Michael Phelps accomplished at this Olympics will long redound to his glory, what Eric Liddle did both at the 1924 Olympics and throughout his life will redound to God's glory, and, as those bonny Scots would say, "that's more than a wee bit greater."
by Ben Witherington
Tags: Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddle, Harold Abrams, Paris Olympics



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