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Monthly Archives: November 2015

Famous Last Words: Oscar Wilde

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Sometimes, despite all the best intentions, real life takes over.  I’ve not posted in the past fortnight because it did just that!  But I’m mindful that, no matter what life throws my way, every moment is an opportunity.  Even the last moment of one’s life is an opportunity, as witnessed by famous last words:

Oscar Wilde

“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.”

Oscar Wilde

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The Ugliest Runner

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Eric LiddellEric Liddell is known today largely because of the film, “Chariots of Fire”, in which he is portrayed.  He was known as a man of conviction and faith, but was also ridiculed for his ugly, ungainly running style, mouth open, head thrown back and arms flailing.  In 1932, the journalist W.W. Marsh remembered Liddell “running with that extraordinary gait of his, like a stricken stag”.  But as Harold Abrahams, Olympic 1924 winner of the gold medal in the 100m race (the one which Liddell famously refused to compete in because its final would be on a Sunday), surmised, “People may shout their heads off about his appalling style. Well, let them. He gets there.”

Born in January 1902 to Scottish missionaries in Tientsin, northern China, Liddell was educated in China, and later in a boarding school for missionary children near London.  When his family returned to the UK on furlough from China, he would live with them (mainly) in Edinburgh.  Athletics were merely a way to fill free time for Liddell, whose goal was to return to China as a missionary, following in his parents’ footsteps; his most famous quote sums it up:  “I believe that God made me for a purpose; but he also made me fast.  And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

We know him as a runner, but in fact his entire career in running was  only from 1921 to 1925:  His first meet was for the Edinburgh Athletics Club in 1921; within 2 years he was running races beyond the Scottish borders and became known as “The Flying Scotsman” (named after the eponymous train famous for its record-breaking speed).  Within those four years he also completed a degree in science (he later taught science at the Anglo-Christian College in Tientsin), became a renowned preacher, and won seven caps for Scotland in Rugby.  While his Olympic fame would seem to be the crowning achievement of his life, he still considered sport a hobby, and even ran in a few meets while living in China; but his true goal was not the “cinder track” but the mission fields of China to which he returned a year after the Olympics were history.

Eric Liddell, The Flying ScotsmanFrom 1925 to 1943, Liddell served as a missionary in China.  In 1941, he sent his pregnant wife and their two daughters to the safety of her parents’ home in Canada, while he went to serve the poor at a rural mission station in Xiaozhang, where he relieved his brother Rob, who left to recover from illness.  Though he had been planning to follow his wife within a few months, as the Japanese made inroads into China Liddell had to relocate to Tianjin, from which he was interred in 1943 in the Japanese internment camp (Weihsien) along with members of the China Inland Mission and children of missionaries.  He never saw his family again, and never met his third daughter, Maureen, who was born in Canada.

Even in such dire circumstances, when the POWs began forming cliques to protect and provide for themselves, Liddell was known as a selfless Christian who gave his whole heart to doing what he could for those around him:  He organized games, Bible studies, taught science to the children (who referred to him as Uncle Eric), and shamed the richer inmates into sharing the foods they smuggled into the camp.  Langdon Gilkey, who also survived the camp and became a prominent theologian in America, said of Liddell: “Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humour and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.” ( “50 stunning Olympic moments: No8 Eric Liddell’s 400 metres win, 1924”. The Guardian)

David Mitchell, a child-inmate in the camp with Liddell who went on to become the Director for Canada of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, said this of Liddell:  “Eric stood out among the 1800 people packed into our camp, which measured only 150 by 200 yards. He was in charge of the building where we younger children, who had already been away from our parents for four years because of the war, lived with our teachers. He lived in the very crowded men’s dormitory near us (each man had a space of only three by six feet) and supervised our daily rollcall when the guards came to count us. One day a week ‘Uncle Eric’ would look after us, giving our teachers (all missionaries of the China Inland Mission and all women) a break. His gentle face and warm smile, even as he taught us games with the limited equipment available, showed us how much he loved children and how much he missed his own.”  (Eric Liddell, “The Disciplines of the Christian Life“)

Little did Eric know that his death would come only months before the liberation of the camp and the end of World War 2:  Suffering from an undetected brain tumour, the malnutrition and fatigue of prison life took its toll, and Eric passed away suddenly on 21 February 1945.  He was buried in the garden behind the Japanese officers’ quarters, his grave marked by a simple wooden cross.  His last words were reported by a fellow missionary to be, “It’s complete surrender”, referring to how he had given his life to God.

His grave and his writings were in danger of being forgotten; a few men dedicated years of their lives to finding both, and have restored his memory to us.  His only book, “The Disciplines of the Christian Life“, is now available in paperback and Kindle formats, allowing his powerful voice to speak down through history to us today.

A Forgotten Page in History: Joe Hill

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The name Joe Hill might be familiar to some of you through the eponymous song; but just who was he, and why was he killed?

At the turn of the 20th century, Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, also known as Joseph Hillström, was an emigrant from Sweden to the United States.  A songwriter and labourer, he became a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and  rose in the IWW, traveled widely, organized workers under the union’s banner, and wrote political songs and satirical poems, as well as speaking at rallies.

Joe HillIn January 1914, the migratory working life of Hill caught him in the wrong place at the wrong time:  Tangled in a political murder investigation and a love triangle gone awry on the wrong night, Hill was essentially used as a scape-goat for expediency; what the locals in Salt Lake City took to be a homeless tramp and easy goat turned out to be a man with connections, and the trial became a major media event:  Clemency was requested from such prominent people as President Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, and the Swedish ambassador.  Despite numerous contradictions, and evidence to the contrary, Hill was executed by firing squad on 19 November 1915.  His last will, eventually set to music by Ethel Raim of the Pennywhistlers, reads as follows:

My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to divide.
My kin don’t need to fuss and moan,
“Moss does not cling to rolling stone.”

My body? Oh, if I could choose
I would to ashes it reduce,
And let the merry breezes blow,
My dust to where some flowers grow.

Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my Last and final Will.
Good Luck to All of you,
Joe Hill

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