Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Chariots of Fire

Chariots of Fire was released in 1981. It won four Oscars for; Best Original Music Score, (Vangelis), Best Costume Design, Best Original Screenplay (Colin Welland) and to the surprise of many Best Picture. It is one of my favourite movies. The picture centres on the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, focusing on the lives of two of the British competitors; Harold Abrahams, a Cambridge undergraduate with Jewish ancestry and Eric Liddell, a Scottish undergraduate studying in Edinburgh who was born in China to missionary parents where he spent the first five years of his life. The film focuses on the lives of these two men leading up to the Olympic Games. We learn something of what drives them, who they allow to influence them and ultimately the impact that their success has on their lives.

The contrast between the two men is captivating. Abrahams is ambitious, driven and highly talented. He has a fine intellect, is a superb athlete, sings and is well able to charm the lead singer from the latest production of Gilbert and Sullivan. Yet beneath all this confidence we discover a man desperately wanting approval, on his terms. He is convinced success will give this to him. He adopts a professional attitude to his training and regularly promotes his athletic achievements through newspaper articles written by a ‘special correspondent’, Abraham’s no less.

Liddell on the other hand is polite, shy and a deeply committed Christian. He too wants success but only within the framework of what he believes it means to honour God. The first scene in the movie I want to focus on is a talk between Eric Liddell and his sister Jenny. He has turned up late for a meeting and is scolded by his sister who feels he is living with a divided heart. She perceives the conflict to be between his love for God and serving Him and his love for Sport. By this time Liddell had achieved huge notoriety in Scotland as a famed winger who regularly played in the Five Nations Rugby Championships and achieving a time of 9.7 seconds for the 100 yard dash – a record that would stand for the next 35 years. The expectation from the country was that he would represent Scotland in the Olympics 100 metre race.

46.53 – 49.47 – What do I aim for now?
The first scene I have chosen is where Abraham’s and Liddell face off one another in a 100 metre race. For the first time Abraham’s is defeated. He is shocked and sits mesmerised going over the race again and again in his mind trying to understand what went wrong. He sweetheart draws alongside to comfort him. She is astonished that his reaction seems disproportionate to what has taken place. He has lost a race not a friend! But Abraham’s is inconsolable. “I don’t run to take beatings”, he protests, “I run to win and if I can’t win I won’t run”. Her response exposes the foolishness of his logic, “Well if you don’t run you can’t win”. Abraham’s is at a point of crisis. He has given everything and still lost. “What do I aim for now?” is his anguished cry. Again she brings him back on track in his thinking, “Beating him next time”.

And as Abraham’s ponders these words the skilful trainer Mr Massabini turns up on the scene declaring, “Mr Abraham’s, I can find you another two yards!” Sometimes in life we go as far as we can with our own knowledge and skill. It takes us to a certain place. But the Bible tells us that many times we need others to help us go further. People who have life experience, who know what to look for; people who can train and mentor us to reach our full potential. For Abraham’s to go to the next level he needed to put his trust in a trainer.

Timothy went to a whole new level in his ministry because Paul took him under his wing – and Timothy agreed. To say no to this kind of help is often to condemn yourself to a limited level of success, which leaves a gnawing feeling that you know you could have done more. And while others sing your praises for what you have achieved, you live with this inner feeling of discontentment. It’s a sad place to be. Like Abraham’s we need friends who will remind us of what we are capable of; rebuke our self pitying episodes and encourage us to receive help from those who can take us further.

56.00 – 57.58 – God made me fast!
Liddell walks with his sister along the hills overlooking Edinburgh. His appreciation for how his sister feels is touching, but with a characteristic firm and gentle spirit he reminds her that even though he knows he is made for a purpose and called to China he also knows that God has made him fast, “and when I run, I feel His pleasure”.

Many of us grow up in church traditions that do not understand this important point that Liddell is making. We often grow up with a sense of what is truly spiritual and what is worldly by the approval or censorship we encounter when we do things. Meetings, prayer, witnessing, these are all perceived as spiritual activities. But sport, theatre and many of the arts are perceived as worldly. The tide is turning today, but remember, Liddell understood this way back in the roaring twenties. For him it was not a case of either/or, but and/both. The only question in his mind was about ordering his priorities – and for this season in his life sport and running came first. Not before God, but before study and missionary service.

“Not to run would be to hold him in contempt...... to win is to honour Him”. These words reflect a world view desperately needed in the church. All of life belongs to God and no part is beyond the touch of His grace. As my old brethren elder used to tell me, “He is either Lord of all or not at all”. Jesus said in John 10.10, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly”. The word for abundance there means more than is sufficient or necessary.

The very first miracle Jesus performed was turning water into wine at a wedding. Some religious people are almost embarrassed by this miracle. Over 180 Gallons of wine at a wedding where they had already drunk a lot! The wedding was one of the most common events of day to day life. There is nothing especially ‘spiritual’ about it. It isn’t about a great message or a significant healing. It’s about running out of drink! Each of us needs to consider the gifts we have been given to steward. Not just the obviously spiritual ones we can easily identify with ministry, but the ones we often discount because they have been abused in more worldly contexts. Liddell saw his speed as a gift; a gift that could honour God and become a means of making him known. And that is exactly what happened. Liddell’s success made him a sought after speaker and he used every opportunity to speak of Jesus.

1.22.14 – 1.23.19 – A Confrontation with Conscience
The third scene is where Liddell meets Lord Birkenhead, one of the British Olympic Committee members. Liddell has discovered that the heats for the 100 metre race will take place on a Sunday and he refuses to run. (In real life this actually happened some months before the Games and for a period Liddell was one of the most despised men in Scotland, until he managed to get his race changed to run in the 400 metre race). For dramatic purposes the film portrays all this happening while in France days before the race.

Liddell is about to face the future King of England where he and others will try to persuade him to run on Sunday. He stands firm and is resolute despite the amazing pressure when another runner offers to swap races with Liddell. But the encounter with Birkenhead gives us a key insight as to the attitude that Liddell had when he walked into that meeting.

“My arrogance sir extends just as far as my conscience demands”.

Many times our convictions will be misunderstood as arrogance. The watchword for today is tolerance which has become a synonym for compromise and lack of conviction. Those with convictions today are labelled bigots, prejudiced or marrow minded. Liddell did not much care for the approval or endorsement of others. He cared about honouring God and living out from his deeply held convictions. For him choices like this were an issue of conscience. If it meant being labelled arrogant for doing so then he was prepared to live with the label.

I think of Biblical characters like Paul he often suffered false accusation at the hands of Judaizers who followed him around. Yet his testimony was that he strived to live his life with “A conscience void of offense before God and men”, Acts 24.16. Arrogance and conviction can appear similar at first sight but they are vastly different animals. Arrogance parades itself as the arbiter of truth. Conviction on the other hand gives reason and explanation to its stand. Arrogance sets up judgments of others and uses intimidation to cause their will to yield. Conviction refuses to judge but appeals to history, experience truth and conscience to persuade others. It has an altogether meek interior whilst its voice is bold and certain.

Such were the convictions of Eric Liddell. A man who was the easy favourite to win the 100 metre sprint yet was prepared to forgo this glory to honour God. And when he did accept the change to run in the 400 metre race he was accepting a monumental challenge. It was not his main event. The chance of a Gold medal must have seemed remote.

1.30.40 – 1.32.55 – Isaiah 40
The fourth scene almost speaks for itself. While all the other runners are performing and in most cases failing, we see Liddell speaking from Isaiah chapter 40 in a Church of Scotland service in Paris. It is a Sunday. Crowds attend the service. He is literally living what he is preaching – waiting on God, renewing his strength, now ready to mount up with wings as eagles. And on the day of the race that’s exactly what he does.

I’ve learned in life and ministry that there are times when we need to pull back and take time out with God. We may take issue with Liddell about Sunday being the ‘Sabbath’, but we dare not take issue with the principal of Sabbath rest – God’s rest. Life has its rhythms and we do well to discern what they are. There is a time for everything says the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 3.1-8. When we work yoked to Christ we don’t have to strive. Psalm 127 says that those who build the house do so in vain if God is not in it. A similar warning is given to the watchmen. Nothing is meant to be done in our own strength. The Psalmist goes on to say, “He gives his beloved sleep”, Ps 127.2. The issue is not the hours we put in. It is about working smarter not faster. Like Liddell we need to learn when to step back and trust God to take care of building and watching!

1.48.0 – 1.52.44 – Victory!
In the final scene we see the 400 metre race. The record for the 400 meters was 48.2 seconds. In a qualifying heat on July 10th, the day before the big race, J. Imbach of Switzerland set a new record of 48 seconds flat. In the semi-final run on Friday morning, July 11th, Horatio M. Fitch of Chicago broke the record again, bringing the time down to 47.8 seconds. Everyone expected the 400-meter race to be a battle between Imbach and Fitch.

Eric Liddell had drawn the worst starting position in the race, way out on the rim of the curve. His would be the last spot to hear the starter's gun and with no visible competitor it would be difficult for him to judge his own progress throughout the race. As Liddell went to the starting blocks, he was slipped a piece of paper with a quotation from 1 Samuel 2:30, "Those who honour me I will honour." Liddell ran with that piece of paper clutched in his hand. Shortly after the gun fired, however, Eric took a lead that he never relinquished. When he broke the tape at 47.6 seconds, the Olympic record for the 400 meters had been shattered three times in twenty-four hours. He won by a lead of 5 meters in a race that, until that time, was not considered his greatest strength.

Liddell went on to achieve more fame as a sportsman but true to his word he went to China where he served as a missionary from 1925 to 1943. When the Japanese invaded China he was interred with others while his pregnant wife and two children escaped to Canada. He died two years later. All of Scotland mourned. Such was the calibre of this great athlete. Would to God that more of us could have such an impact on our generation and leave a lasting legacy of a life lived to the full for the glory of God.