Commemoration of Eric Liddell, Missionary to China
and speak, O Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God’?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:27-31
When I open the lectionary and see the commemoration for the day along with the readings, I often wonder how whoever it was who did the choosing picked the particular readings for the given occasion. With things like the Paschal Tridiuum, All Saints and Christmas it’s pretty easy to figure out which readings are most appropriate; it’s when it comes to the new ones, the newest-added commemorations of Anglican and Episcopal saints that brought me to that question. I still don’t know but in the case of Eric Liddell, the designee for today, I think they checked their concordances for appropriate words like “missionary” and “runner.” Eric Liddell was both.
Eric Liddell was born in China to missionary parents in 1902. From the age of 6, he was educated in boarding school for missionary children in Blackheath, London, and then to Edinburgh University. Being an MK (Missionary Kid), one would expect him to somewhat kick over the traces like a lot of preacher’s kids (PKs) do, but he doesn’t seem to have done that. One of his great loves was sports, especially rugby and running. He was chosen for the 1924 British Olympic teams as a runner, his best event being the 100 meter. As anyone who has watched Chariots of Fire will know, when his running event heat was scheduled for a Sunday, he would not run on that day and so forfeited his chance to medal in that event. He did run the 400 meters on another day, however, and won that gold medal, a feat which can still be seen in a video on the internet.
It seems a bit strange to watch a saint run such a race. We’re a bit more used to Paul’s metaphorical race and winning it. Still, Liddell won a real race and in world record time. He also won a bronze in the 200 meter.
After his graduation from university in 1932, he returned to China as a missionary, being ordained to the ministry in 1932 and marrying the daughter of a missionary in 1934. It was a turbulent time in China and the Liddell family suffered because of it. With the bombing at Pearl Harbor in 1941, things got even worse. His wife and children heeded the advisory that emigrants like the missionaries should leave the country but Liddell and his brother stayed to continue the ministry. He was captured by the Japanese in 1943 and interned in a prison camp where he continued to practice his ministry among his fellow captives. He died in the camp in 1945 just before the liberation of the prisoners in that camp.
It seems odd, in a way, to have a saint who lived almost within my own lifetime. I’m used to 12th – 19th century saints but more recent ones like Martin Luther King Jr., Florence Li-Tim Oi and Eric Liddell feel a bit strange to me. It makes me stop and think. Could I be witnessing a saint being born or being used by God for the good of others? It also helps me to think about Eric Liddell and the notion that saints aren’t always pious people sitting in church praying or preaching on street corners, Bible in hand. Piety sometimes shows in odd ways, like refusing to run a race on Sunday or staying in a danger zone because that’s where they’re needed most. Even saints had real lives and sometimes interests outside churches and theology books.
I know that every baptized Christian is part of the Communion of Saints. It makes me think that maybe I’m not living up to my potential or that I’m riding on the coat-tails of other members of that body much more worthy of the name of saint than I. Take, for instance, Fr. Mychal Judge and the firefighters of 9/11 who rushed into a danger from which thousands of others were running away. They’re not on our calendar but we do remember them every time the anniversary of that date rolls around. Like Liddell and others, they did what they had to do to try to help and save people they probably didn’t know but valued as human beings regardless of color, race, religion, orientation or any other artificial classification the world put on them.
Eric Liddell was a missionary and a runner. He not only ran the Olympic track of Paris, he ran the Pauline track of missionary life, Christian life dedicated to the service of others. What he attained is more than a gold medal; he won a golden crown as well. He is in our list of commemorations for that reason and as an example of what that golden crown is about.
I don’t know about anybody else, but it makes me think I need to try a bit harder to live into that “saint” thing. I can’t let the Eric Liddell and the rest of the Communion of Saints down. I can’t let God down either. It takes work and training, and I think I’d better get busy. The finish line is getting closer every day. And also it reminds me to look around — I may be seeing the birthing process of a new saint for the calendar.