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“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” Matthew 5:48
If ever a human came close, it was probably Eric Liddell. You may know of Liddell from “Chariots of Fire,” the film based (loosely, apparently, according to this book — I haven’t seen it) on his life. For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr is a new book detailing Eric’s life.
Liddell was born to Scottish parents in China, where his parents were missionaries. In 1924, at the age of 22, Eric was scheduled to run the 100-meter race in the Olympics in Paris. But he refused to run when he learned that the race would be held on a Sunday. The book went into a bit of history on Sunday competitions, and Liddell wasn’t the first to decline participation for this reason. Dating back to 1900, 3 Americans had refused participation in Sunday Olympic events. In 1908, American hurdler Forest Smithson competed (and won) on a Sunday, while holding a Bible in his hand in protest and testimony. I had to admire these athletes for standing up for their beliefs, which seem almost quaint in today’s world.
Liddell was scheduled to run the 400-meter race instead, and despite the fact that he was expected by no one to be competitive in the event, he won it.
Instead of resting on his laurels and raking in product endorsements, Liddell basically said goodbye to athletics the next year, moving to China to become a missionary as his parents had been. Asked once whether he regretted leaving athletic glory behind for the mission field, Liddell answered, “It’s natural for a chap to think over all that sometimes, but I’m glad I’m at the work I’m engaged in now. A fellow’s life counts for far more at this than the other.”
I’ll confess to knowing little to nothing about Chinese history, but from what I gleaned in this book, it sounds like a rough place to be during the 1920s-1940s, when Liddell was there. Infighting among various Chinese groups, and later between the Chinese and Japanese, made the area unstable and not very pleasant. But “everywhere the crows are black” was a favorite saying of his — meaning that, no matter where you are, people are pretty much the same.
In 1934, Liddell married his wife, Florence, who was almost a decade younger. Her parents, like his, were missionaries in China. The Liddells had two daughters. By 1941, life in China was deemed too dangerous for missionary women and children, and so Florence and the girls moved to her home in Canada.
As I read, with the benefit of hindsight, I kept wishing Eric would join his family in Canada. But he remained devoted to the Chinese people, insisting on staying. In 1943, the Japanese set up prison camps, and Eric was interned at one. There would be no more chances now to leave. Even in the camp, he continued to inspire others. He was especially beloved by the children, and he always provided a listening ear for anyone who wanted to talk. “He was loved by everyone,” said a fellow prisoner. “It is my prayer that I may live like Eric, a life that is exemplary, lovely, useful and full of caring service to others.”
Eric still ran at times, and various others in the camp liked to challenge him to races (which he always won). In late 1944, however, he lost a race for the first time. He also began complaining of severe headaches and memory loss. Frustratingly, the medical officials at the camp diagnosed his problem as a nervous breakdown. He kept up his work as best he could, until one day when he suffered a few strokes.
Outside his hospital window, the Salvation Army band played Liddell’s favorite hymn, “Be Still, My Soul.” He was feeling guilty about the nervous breakdown diagnosis, telling a friend, “I ought to have been able to cast it all on the Lord and not have broken down under it.” He died the next week, at age 43. I found it very sad that he felt such guilt over a misdiagnosis, and wondered how often we feel guilty over something where we don’t have the full picture.
I was really encouraged by learning more about Liddell. I have to confess though that I wasn’t that blown away by Duncan Hamilton’s writing style. It was fine, but perhaps the book suffered in comparison with Erik Larson’s writing in “Dead Wake,” which I’d read just prior. That book’s writing style was much more engaging.
Still, this is a story that you would be blessed to read. Recommended.