One of my favourite modern folk singers, Billie Marten, sings that “hope is a distance unreached”. A month ago I wrote about not being able to stand hope, as hope it seems, can be a tortuous thing. Some days hope can be a shining beacon: an assurance of a promise. Other days it can feel frayed and weathered, a distance unreachable even.
I can’t help but see paradigms of hope in the recent changes at Sunderland Association Football Club. Hope can be buried so deep that it becomes a platitude, a false substitute word when the user doesn’t want to acknowledge the word they really mean is despair. Yet this week the club was sold and made debt free by the previous owner. The new owners immediately started engaging with fans through tweets and podcasts, laying out their perfect PR vision for a community club where the fans could come and help change the faded ‘pink’ seats themselves with burgers thrown in. A fanbase has suddenly become impassioned with pride again and they’re selling season tickets like bottled water in the desert. A tweet was widely circulated by supporters. It was by Susie Dent, word aficionado on Countdown. She was reminding her followers of the beautifully rare word ‘respair’, which means ‘fresh hope and recovery from despair’. Some may be surprised that football supporters from Sunderland would be appreciative of etymology, but there you have it. A refined bunch. Pseudo-hope which surely ends in disappointment is replaced by respair. Only time, and away matches at the likes of Accrington Stanley will tell whether this hope is fulfilled.
At my Grandmother’s funeral earlier this year I met a couple for the first time. My Gran had often mentioned them within her extended and complicated diatribes and I hadn’t fully understood the significance of their friendship, or story until recently. The lady’s father, Giuseppe, was Italian and he found himself working on my Great-grandfather’s farm in Cumbria as a prisoner of war. I was shown photos of Giuseppe with my young Gran and amongst a group of workers in the hay fields. Giuseppe had been a tailor in Sicily and he made fine suits. After the war he opened his own tailor shop in Carlisle where he remained for the rest of his life until his death in 1996. The gentleman at my Gran’s funeral was wearing a suit that his late father in law had made for him years previously. While hearing the story I asked the lady whether her mother was also from Italy and had moved to be with her husband after the war. “Oh no” was her response, “my mum was Carlisle born and bred”. It got me thinking about Giuseppe, or Joseph as he became. I’d imagine initially he might have been pleased to be out of the war, and its likely that cattle farming would have been preferable to dodging bullets. Yet I’m sure he also hoped for a time when the war would be over and he would return to Italy and family and being an Italian tailor, in Italy. The wet and cold in the North of England is not exactly the most desirable climate for a Mediterranean man. Somehow though, for Joseph, what he hoped for changed. He did return to Sicily after the war, but whether love, or an entrepreneurial spirit drove him back, he set up his Carlisle shop in 1949. At some point, the thing he hoped for morphed into a different, reimagined type of hope.
Two years ago Sunderland fans hoped to stay in the Premier League. Last season we hoped to stay in the championship. This season the hope is in a renewed club with a new set of values and a greater sense of pride… A different type of hope. I’m now four months into an unpleasant relegation of my own, dealing with unrelenting fatigue and nerve sensitivity. When I was ill as a teenager, many people gave me a bible verse from Isaiah 40:
Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust (wait) in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.
Isaiah 40:30-31 NLT
It’s the perfect verse for a lad with M.E. It became a mantra. Trust (or wait) on God for your healing and it’ll all be sorted. Some people might even abrasively have suggested I needed to trust more. It was all sorted in the end, albeit 6 years later.
So I’ve been given these verses on two occasions in recent months by strangers who were praying for me. Was this just God trolling me, or did I need to listen? Are God’s promises really Yes and Amen? Or do promises ware off and need to be renewed like an old hip replacement gone wrong? I woke up at 4am one night this week with this bit of Isaiah going through my mind, gnawing away at me like a skin irritant. I’m not running, and I’m hardly walking some days. I am waiting though.
The two words Run and Walk wouldn’t let me sleep and then it occurred to me that these words are pretty central to some other epic verses.
Hebrews 12v1 talks about throwing off all the stuff that hinders and metaphorically running the race marked out for us with perseverance… eyes fixed on Christ. Psalm 23’s writer was walking through the darkest valley but would not fear because of the presence of the Lord. All of a sudden my reading of this verse changed my personal understanding of it for me. My paradigm had shifted from a pinning of hope on recovery (an exhausting, straining sort of hope) to the hope that God’s presence is with me in the dark valley and that of active-faith perseverance without growing weary. This isn’t a weathered, frayed, draining sort of distant hope but a sustaining and assured hope. It’s still hope, but a reimagined version. Don’t get me wrong, I’d take full recovery in an instant, but then again Sunderland fans would take premier league glory in an instant. We just have to journey through this division first. And then the next.