The Man in the Colorful Shirt

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Default image
Fifty years ago, as a twelve-year-old, I was in a Japanese Prison Camp in Northern China. The year was 1944. It was winter, bleak, freezing cold. And we had very little coal dust to stoke our dormitory potbelly stove. What was worse, Mom and Dad were two thousand miles away in far western China.

But there was one bright spark! Our local hero, Eric Liddell, was also in camp. He was known for his bright, patched up, wildly colorful shirts. Eric was our hero, primarily because he had won a gold medal in the 1924 Olympic Games. But now as I look back, far beyond any athletic achievements, he was our hero because he exemplified Jesus Christ to all the lives he touched. He was modest, caring, and gave himself totally to the needs of others.

By this time in World War II, we were all in rags, old hand-me-downs, the colors faded long ago. But somehow, ingenious Eric acquired swatches and scraps of colorful, sometimes bizarre cloth. He patched these together into a shirt of remarkable cheerfulness. His outer expression reflected his inner attitude of refusal to give way to the depressing environment of our surroundings.

I remember his concern for us kids, with no toys, very little sports equipment, and not much to do during those long winter months. He would organize field hockey and diligently collect and repair old battered hockey sticks so we could keep playing.

We prisoners, up to 2,000 in number, had to live in cramped quarters for nearly four years in a high-walled compound about 200 yards by 100 yards. With no escape and no privacy, we had to face each other day after day. There was no room for pretense. What you really were inside—whether selfish, greedy, and demanding or compassionate, self-giving, and caring—became very evident to those around.

In this context, Eric demonstrated the life of Jesus. Some prisoners grumbled their way through the camp years, contributing as little as possible and making it hard for those who had to live with them. On the other hand, Eric demonstrated, not only through his bright shirt, but also through his joy and compassion, that it is possible to live triumphantly no matter how difficult the circumstances.

Eric was not able to see the great day when we were set free, for he quite suddenly died from a brain tumor. His death was a huge shock to the whole camp. However, his life and witness live on, partly through the movie Chariots of Fire, the story of his famous gold medal, but also through the memories of those of us who knew him so vividly.

Eric Liddell ran the good race. His shirt was evidence that he had learned how to be content whatever the circumstance. Even more than contentment, though, Eric was full of joy—and his joy was contagious.

He knew the worst that could happen in that camp was not death. It was despair. But Eric Liddell never despaired. He faced death with confidence. He knew his story would have a happy ending because he knew he was going to meet his Savior, wear those same colorful shirts in heaven, and probably ask the Trinity to join him in a game of field hockey.

As we come to Jesus Christ, we are clothed with His Righteousness. Beyond that, He calls us to put on the bright colors of His Joy and Peace. In His strength we can do this in all circumstances.

Questions for Further Reflection:

• Are any of your coworkers grumbling their way through each workweek? (Are you?) How do you respond to grumblers? How would Christ?

• John Hoyte thinks of Eric Liddell as a hero "because he exemplified Jesus Christ to all the lives he touched." What lives will you touch this week? How can you better exemplify Christ to these people?

• In Philippians 4:12, Paul says he has "learned the secret of being content in any and every situation." In verse 13 he reveals the secret. What is it?