Some years ago I had the opportunity of taking six young people to Vanuatu where we were invited by the local villagers to run a week-long mission in South West Bay Malekula. It was both a lot of fun as well as exhausting, where our team learnt a lot as well as sharing a lot.
We began each day in the church with morning prayer led by different members of the team, and then spent the morning with the young people studying the bible as well as engaging in games designed to build trust and nurture community.
In the afternoons we went up to the primary school that my father started back in the 1950’s and ran a children’s program, telling the bible stories, playing games and teaching simple songs. I was interested to see a group of elderly men one day gathered outside listening and smiling, and afterward as we were packing up one of the men came up to me and said, ‘Your mother taught us that song when we were little.’ It was an old song with actions:
‘Wide, wide as the ocean, high as the heavens above.
Deep, deep as the deepest sea is my Saviour’s love . . .’
When I heard that I felt as though I had picked up a baton from my mother to continue sharing the story of God’s love.
In the evenings of that week we showed the movie, ‘Chariots of Fire,” first to people in the village and then to the students in the High School. We had brought with us a data projector and a small laptop as well as a white sheet to act as a screen. If you have never seen ‘Chariots of Fire’ it’s well worth watching. It is based on the true story of two British athletes in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Eric Liddell is a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who runs to overcome prejudice.
When Eric Liddell refuses to run on Sunday even under pressure from the future king of England, he is eventually offered to run the 400 meters race on another day instead of the 100 meter heat on Sunday.
In the film we see him preaching on that Sunday in the Paris Congregation of the Church of Scotland. The text for his sermon is the passage we read this Sunday from Isaiah: ‘they 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.’
All through the sermon the film gives us glimpses of the races being held, where one by one Liddell’s team mates fail to win their races. It’s a very poignant moment and a powerful affirmation of the faith Isaiah expresses in that passage. Eric Liddell went on to win both a gold and a bronze medal.
It was a good film to share with the students of the District School run by the Church. It shows athletes seeking to do their very best, and for different reasons. Harold Abrahams wanted to help overcome racial and religious prejudice by winning gold, and Eric Liddell ran to honour God. Liddell was also a Scottish rugby union international player and went on to become a missionary in China. Athletes who stand by their convictions and faith often become good role models for young people, and Eric Liddell was certainly that. He sought to honour God through his sport and example.
The issue of racism in sport has been highlighted in recent days within the Collingwood football team. This was something Harold Abrahams sought to address and clearly we also need to keep addressing today.
It takes courage to stand up for what is right, so may God give us the courage to live out our faith in ways that reconcile and heal.