Everywhere Adam and I went on our five year prayer journey leading up to the Olympic Games we were attended by fire engines. I don’t remember if they were there the first couple of times. They may have been and we just didn’t notice, but in Cardiff in February 2008, we had just reached a roundabout when three circled it, sirens sounding, and sped off down one of the roads. Five minutes later they returned and overtook us going down the main road to the docks that we were walking down. They were lost and searching for the fire. When we arrived at the end of the road it had been sealed off due to ‘an incident’. After that we began to notice that fire engines turned up everywhere. Nearly always they were on the key trade arteries of towns and cities that we had deliberately chosen to walk and pray down. In fact, in the last three years, I remember the one place where there wasn’t one – Wolverhampton. We always puzzled over what they meant, drawing no particular conclusion, but drew encouragement that they seemed to be recognising us and that they meant we were in the right place at the right time.
Last week I was working in a kitchen that I was decorating, and mulling over the Olympics experience and our now finished journey in the light of it. What a big part of my life all that travelling was, and yet, compared to the grandeur and drama of the Olympics now taking place, what an insignificant thing it seemed. I am sure there are many others who prayed about the Olympics and what it was marking in our land, in their own ways responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who have wondered the same. Here it is in full flow, with millions watching all over the world. Did we do what we had to? Were we ready?
Then the Lord reminded me,
“I am able to do far more than you ever ask or imagine.”
It occurred to me that we’ve been hearing the theme music from ‘Chariots of Fire’ at every event, far more than any National Anthem. So were those fire engines ‘chariots of fire’, or being drawn to a fire of some kind? The flame symbolism is all about something being passed on to the next runner, or the next generation. That’s what happened when Elisha saw Elijah being taken up in his chariot of fire – a baton, or mantle, was successfully passed on. (So I am so glad that, in the opening ceremony, the cauldron was not lit by some famous old hero, as everyone expected, but that the final torch was given to unknown young people who have yet to make their mark.)
The film ‘Chariots of Fire’ was re-released for the Olympics. I wondered, did the organisers realise that film was not just a film about Scotland’s most famous runner, but also about an evangelist and missionary, and a man who came from China and returned to China. Apparently, because of Liddell’s birth and death in China, some Chinese Olympic literature claims him as Chinas first Olympic champion. Eric Liddell returned to China as a missionary after the 1924 Paris Olympics, and he died there in a Japanese internment camp.
In 2008, around the time of the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government released previously unknown information about Liddell’s life. At one point Liddell had been offered the opportunity of release from Internment camp on a prisoner exchange deal. He declined, giving his place instead to a pregnant woman. The revelation was a surprise even to his descendants.
We were aware of a spiritual connection between Beijing and London represented in these games and the pathway of the Olympic flame. Perhaps we were anticipating a spiritual flow, even anticipating the worst given all the pagan symbolism, nationalism and glory in human achievement that comes with the Olympic movement. Personally I spent five years praying in response to a warning that this year, with this event at its centre, was a pivotal one in our destiny as a nation and in our relationship with the rest of the world, a destiny that could go either way.
How amazing is the grace of God that as the Olympic spirit berthed in our capital city, he reminds us that we are a missionary land, a mission-sending people. There is a grace in our connection and destiny with nations being revealed and restored to us that we had maybe written off. There are prayers and sacrifices counting for us in the reckoning of heaven that we didn’t know. He reassures us our prayers have been heard; even the ones we didn’t pray are being answered. And Eric Liddell turns up unexpected at the 2012 Games, reminding us the wells are still there to be drunk from, the mantles waiting to worn again if we can glimpse the chariots of fire. It was certainly more than I asked for or imagined.