PASTOR’S PERSPECTIVE: “Jesus in Running Shoes-muscular Christianity with a radiant godliness”. By: Ron Woodrum
At the 54th Academy Awards, 1982, honoring the movies of 1981, there were many excellent films vying for the best picture award. There was On Golden Pond, starring Henry Fonda, in his last film, along with Catherine Hepburn, and his daughter Jane Fonda. Fred Astaire starred in his last movie-Ghost Story. Burt Lancaster hoped his film Atlantic City would win the award. Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson had Death Hunt. Then of course there was Harrison Ford in a little-known movie-Raiders of the Lost Ark! There were many more movies and stars that felt deserving. The favorite of the Hollywood crowd was Reds, Starring Warren Beatty; Jack Nicholson, and Diane Keaton. To everyone’s surprise another movie took the top honor…it was Chariots of Fire! It was a movie about two Olympic runners who were willing to sacrifice it all to win Olympic gold medals. One was Harold Abrams, and English Jew, who runs to overcome prejudice, and win the glory for himself, and for his race. The other was Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian, and missionary in training, who runs for the glory of God. His sister Jennie, when hearing that he is competing in the 1924 Olympics try to talk him out of it. She is afraid that the glory will distract him from the call of God on his life. He tells her-“I know that God made me for a purpose, (to be a missionary to China), but He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure!” He did run fast, and the pleasure of God was all over him when he did run. The Guardian newspaper wrote “When he appeared in the heats of the 400 meter run at Paris in 1924 he had a huge sprawling stride, his head thrown back, his face up to heaven, his arms clawing the air, caused the Americans, and other sophisticated experts to deride him with ribald laughter!” A year earlier England had seen his gift of running. In a quarter mile race, he was tripped by another runner named J.J. Gilles as they rounded the first curve. Liddell fell off the track. The runners quickly left him 30 yards behind. The official shouted for Eric to get back in the race. He did just that! He ran at a pace that had him soon pass all the runners before him, passing up Gilles, he crossed the finish line to win the race, collapsing in exhaustion! That earned him the title the “Flying Scotsman!” The Scotsman paper wrote, “The circumstances under which Liddell won that event made it a performance boarding on the miraculous…and in the history of athletics that quarter mile win was the greatest ever track performance ever seen!”
As the events of the 1924 Olympics approached, Eric was the favorite in the 100 Meter Event. When the schedule was announced it became apparent that the 100 Meter Run was on a Sunday. Eric withdrew from the event. He felt that it would dishonor the Lord to run in the event on the Lord’s Day. He withstood national and world pressure to submit. He forfeited glory for conviction. At the last minute he accepted an invitation to run in the 400 Meter one that he had never trained for. When asked how he would win that race he said, “I will run the first 200 meters as fast as I can, for the second 200 meters, with God’s help I will run even harder!” That is exactly what he did. In crippling heat, he ran the first 200 meters in 22.2 seconds. The American challenger said, “I could not believe a man could set such a pace and keep it up to the finish”. In spite of the American straining every nerve and muscle he finished second behind Liddell. It was said, “Liddell ran the entire race in a sprint as a man possessed”. He set the world record of 47.6 in an event he had never planned to ever run! After finishing the race, and winning the gold medal Eric told those who encouraged him to continue his career as an Olympic runner these words-“It has been a wonderful experience to compete in the Olympic games and to win a gold medal. But since I have been a young lad, I HAVE HAD MY EYE ON A DIFFERENT PRIZE. You see each of us is in a GREATER race than the one I have run here in Paris, and this race ends when God gives out His medals”.
Eric finished his theological education and went as a missionary to China. When asked if he regretted that choice he said, “It is natural for a chap to think over all that at times, but I’m glad for the work I am engaged in now. A fellow’s life counts for far more at this than the other!” He certainly did make his life count for so much more! He served as a missionary to China from 1926-1945. After China was occupied by the Japanese in 1942 all missionary work became dangerous. Eric sent his wife and daughters home to Canada, and hoped to join them soon. But in March of 1943 he, along with all other foreigners were imprisoned in an Internment Camp by the Japanese. Eric continued his work without missing a beat. he taught the young people both secular and spiritual subjects. He organized sports to keep them occupied, and even refereed their games. he was fondly known as “Uncle Eric”. He gave special care to older people, the weak and the ill. Despite the squalor of open cesspools, rats, flies, and disease, he made life in this hellish place a normal routine for those imprisoned there. Had it not been for Eric many would never have survived. Mary Taylor Previte, who had been there as a young girl prisoner, said “Uncle Eric was like Jesus in Running Shoes”. Another prisoner said, “None of us will ever forget this man who was totally committed to putting God first, a man who combined muscular Christianity with radiant godliness!” Another Pastor interred there wrote, “He became the moral and spiritual leader of the horrifying reality of that camp”. Landon Gilkey, a liberal Pastor who was there at the same time, wrote “It is rare indeed when a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, He came as close as anyone I have ever known!” Others said he had one desire-“to see every man, woman, boy and girl in China to come to know Jesus as their Savior!” In the latter years of his imprisonment Eric was stricken with a brain tumor. His body grew weak. He spent his last days in the infirmary. On February 21, 1945 Eric finished a letter to his wife and daughters from his sick bed. He spoke to a friend, “It is full surrender”, and he fell into a coma and died shortly thereafter. As the movie Chariots of Fire reveals at the end, “All Scotland mourned his death”. What the movie did not tell us is that “Heaven’s Great Cloud of Witnesses cheered as Eric crossed the finish line to that Greater Race and won a Different Medal, one that God gives to those who sacrifice everything for Him”. Eric had often said that too many “miss the best by settling for the second best!” He made the right choice. The title of the movie Chariots of Fire has a deep meaning. It was chosen from a poem by William Blake called Jerusalem.
And did those feet in Ancient Time
Walk upon England’s mountains green
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant Pastures Seen!
Bring me my Bow of Burning Gold
Bring me my Arrows of Desire
Bring me my Spear: Oh clouds unfold
Bring me my Chariot of Fire
I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Til we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land!
That was Eric Liddell’s desire for his country. When it becomes our desire for ours then we too will have made the first choice, and we too will have chosen the different prize of the greater race, that alone is worth sacrificing everything to stand in that winner’s circle. Run your race!