I visited the Eric Liddell Centre in Edinburgh yesterday. The building is a remarkable adaptation of a Church which merged with the one once attended by Eric Liddell. It's a charity that offers specialist day care service to people diagnosed with dementia, courses and support to carers, office accommodation for a number of charitable organisations and room for many other groups providing activities for the community. It describes itself and is "a living memorial to the Olympic athlete Eric Liddell"
Most of us know the story of Eric Liddell from the award winning film Chariots of Fire which just happened to have a showing at our local churches recently. It was in preparation for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games to be held in Glasgow in the summer of 2014. The film was preceded by a talk from someone working for an organisation called Going for Gold. This is a body that's organising accommodation for the athlete's family and encouraging Churches to get involved in the Games, offering hospitality and service to visitors and volunteers. All of this is good. The purpose is to witness to Christian love and while Christians do this every time they engage in good work, I feel uneasy when there is a need to articulate this and there does seem to be a sub-theme of evangelisation about it. I would be happier if this good work involved other places of worship and others in the community who were not affiliated to a religion but wanted to get involved.
Apart from all of this the film was very moving and i was amazed at how much i had forgotten over the years since I had first seen it. There are many nuggets of wisdom, what we used to call 'bon mots' when I was a novice and maybe 'sound bites' now. One of the most wonderful is when Eric Liddell, explaining his love of running to his sister says ' When God made me he made me fast and when I run I feel God's pleasure in me. in this Eric was living out the good advice given to the athletes educated at Cambridge ' Live out your greatness'. How wonderful to feel God's pleasure in what we do.
The film compares two characters; Harold Abrahams who was obsessed with winning. As a Jew he was very aware of how Christian the higher echelons of British society was and how marginalised he was. Determined to show that he was the best he worked with a personal trainer to distiguish himself as a runner and to be accepted by society. Eric Liddell on the other hand saw his ability as a gift and an extension of himself. Much as he was committed to it he refused to take part in the heats of the 1908 Olympics because they were taking place on a Sunday. As a presbyterian he believed in the sanctity of the Sabbath and would not break it for what he considered his own glorification. To opt out of a race that one had trained for for years and could be the high point of one's career is a sign of real integrity. The good result was that he changed races and did gain a gold medal, even breaking a record in the 400 metres.
Eric Liddell was born in China and went back as a missionary, teaching science and sports. He is regarded as a hero there as his influence led to the Chinese nation participating in the Olympic Games. To me he is a hero because of his integrity. He remained true to his principles. What is particularly interesting for me is that when he was in a prisoner of war camp he actually broke the Sabbath by getting involved in a foootball game with some of the young inmates who were in trouble with the Japanese authorities. Religious law was important to him but not an absolute. In the face of human need he had a freedom of spirit to allow him to serve a higher good, that of love and compassion which, to me, is a sign of the truly religious.