Today marks the 75th anniversary of Eric Liddell's death. He was known more for his actions as an Olympic champion and missionary than for his prayers, but I'd like to share something I discovered about his death that shows how close his intercession brought him to the Lord.
I think all the biographers share that his last words were about "complete surrender." I've been performing my one-man play about the second half of his life, Beyond the Chariots
, since 2004, and in the course of telling his story I discovered something about his final moments on earth that's not included in any biographies I know about.
Now, I recently mentioned his name while leading a workshop at the Content2020 Film Festival and Media Summit
, and then it dawned on me that there may be several in the room who didn't know who he was. A show of hands proved my suspicions, so let me give you a bit of a biography:
He was a rugby and track celebrity of the 1920s, and his fame was renewed when his story was told in the film Chariots of Fire, which garnered four Academy Awards in 1981.
Reporters throughout Great Britain were looking forward to Eric proving he was the fastest man alive in the 100m race at the 1924 Paris Olympics. But when Eric discovered that one of the heats was going to be held on a Sunday, he chose to honor the Lord that day and not himself.
The press berated him and called him a traitor, but though they tried to cancel him, he shifted gears.
He trained for the 400m, and he later told his daughter Patricia that the choice forced him to discover he was really designed to run the 400m distance. In the final heat he took off like it was a sprint, and everyone thought he'd hit his wall. Instead, he picked up speed! His second 200m split was faster than his first! He beat the next runner, Horatio Fitch, by five meters, a distance that wouldn't be broken at the Olympics for three decades. Eric broke the world record, and then the press celebrated him again.
Later, when he graduated from Edinburgh University, after reading Eric's name, the provost broke into the standing ovation to say, "Mr. Liddell, you've proven that none can pass you but your examiners." He had offers flooding in for playing rugby, coaching, and for speaking engagements. Once there were a thousand people outside one of the largest halls in Edinburgh trying to hear what he had to say.
But he left that all behind to be a missionary to China, where he'd been born in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxers attempted to push all Westerners out of China, focusing on the Christians. They killed 133 missionaries and 30,000 Chinese Christians.
So Eric left fame and fortune behind to serve where people didn't want him to return!
|I sprinted around a track |
Eric Liddell designed in Tianjin.
He served as a science teacher and track coach in Tientsin, which is now Tianjin, a bedroom community to Beijing.
Japan invaded China in 1937, and tensions escalated until Eric's wife, Flo took their daughters Patricia and Heather to Canada, where Flo's parents were born. Their third daughter, Maureen, told me she made the trip in a cab with the windows rolled up. She was born in Toronto in 1941.
Eric stayed behind to serve the Chinese people. His daughters told me his choice not to join them always troubled them, but time would heal those wounds.
On December 8, 1941, Eric woke up to discover that Pearl Harbor had been attacked and he was now considered an enemy of Japan. They came through Tientisin and put a patch of ownership on every person and item of any value, and shortly after that, Japanese soldiers crammed nearly 2,000 people from 26 enemy nations into a small Presbyterian missions compound in Weihsien, China.
I've heard what that internment camp was like from a few people who were there. I was once performing Beyond the Chariots in Hong Kong, and I had asked Jamey Hudson Taylor, the great grandson of the vanguard missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, to speak after my performance. He canceled, because he wasn't feeling well. He said his secretary didn't recognize his voice when he called in. When the time came, he was feeling up to attending the performance, so I wanted to acknowledge that he was there. Much to my surprise he came to the stage, and explained that he couldn't help but let us know that it would have been "Uncle Eric's" 105th birthday. He went on to tell the audience how Eric had been a father to many of the children in the camp. He taught them science and coached all sorts of sports. I first met Jamey after my performance at his church the year before. In the play, at the time, I referred to a baseball game. Jamey came up to me after the play and, before introducing himself to me, said, "It was softball. We didn't have enough room to play baseball."
|With Heather, Patricia and |
When Patricia, Heather and Maureen began corresponding with Jamey, his sister Mary Taylor Previte, and some of the others who had been children or teens in the internment camp, the sisters realized that the Lord used their father's separation from his family to bless other children, and it reframed their perception of him abandoning them.
Eric was a bright spot in the internment camp, but one day he lost a race, and everyone took notice. He was having headaches, and they got worse and worse, until he was hospitalized.
The Salvation Army band would play outside his window, and Heather still has a slip of paper on which her father wrote a request for his favorite hymn: "Be Still My Soul." When you hear that played in my play, it's actually by a family in the Salvation Army, recorded about 15 years ago.
|Portraying Eric's headaches.|
The biographies, at least all of the many I've read, tell how Eric slipped into a coma on February 21, 1945, and that his last words were about "complete surrender," a description of how he'd lived his whole life. In the course of performing my play I've read every biography available, including one out of print at the Eric Liddell Centre, thanks to his niece, Dr. Peggy Judge. I've met dozens of people who remember him. Not one of them has ever had a negative thing to say about him.
Not many know that the Olympic champion actually had a second wind and finished even more dramatically. He came out of that coma for a brief moment.
I interviewed Mary Previte, and she told me her sister's boyfriend was in that hospital the night Eric resuscitated. I saw a medical form for Eric in a London museum which indicated that the brain tumor had taken away his strength in his right side and taken away much of his eyesight, but the young man said that Uncle Eric ran down the hall, collapsed into the arms of that young man, and as Uncle Eric tumbled to the ground he told how he was seeing seven angels coming down over the camp. Those were his last words.
About six months later, on August 17, 1945, seven paratroopers were dropped from a B-24 Liberator nicknamed "The Armored Angel." Mary told her recollections from her childhood of those heroes rescuing them. They were ecstatic! They burst the gate and met them before they could get to the camp. That Salvation Army band played a medley of all the Allied nations. Since they didn't know who their liberators might be, they practiced them all... playing the second and third parts only. Those playing the melody only fingered their instruments so their captors wouldn't know what they were playing!
As an adult Mary hunted down all seven of the paratroopers to thank them. She called them their angels. I got to interview one of them, Tad Nagaki, who was in his 90s at the time. After the interview he climbed on his tractor and got back to work: angelic fortitude!
Beyond the Chariots
ends with Liddell whispering, "Complete surrender," but then it shows what few know happened after he slipped into that coma. You can watch my performance of it in Singapore (www.RichDrama.com/BtC
). I didn't add his final sprint down the hallway until two years after that performance, when I brought it to London during the 2012 Olympics, but you will see him watch the angels descend.
After all the years I've run in Uncle Eric's shoes by portraying him in dozens of nations, I had never thought of him as an intercessor, but he certainly was! When he checked into the hospital, he gave his running shoes to a young man named Stephen Metcalf. Earlier, he was challenged by Uncle Eric when he pointed out that they should be praying for the Japanese. In his book Disciplines of the Christian Life, Eric pointed out that the Sermon on the Mount seems upside down when you first look at it, but after examining it, you realize that the world is upside down. He drew often from the right-side-up Sermon on the Mount, including that day when he quoted Matthew 5:44: "...Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..." To Stephen, praying for those who were depriving him of his freedom was an upside down concept, but he prayed anyway. He didn't notice a sudden change in the guards, but he did notice a change in his attitude toward them.
Stephen Metcalf went on to be a missionary to Japan for about forty years.
I encourage you to take a moment now to pray for our enemies, and pray for athletes and other celebrities to come into Salvation and articulate the Lord's truths to their fans.