The etymology of words seldom brings us hope. If sentences and paragraphs, properly constructed and carefully concocted, are slender means to mend a heart or heal a wound, what capacity can the history of how we speak hold to help us?
One phrase which finds its own space in modern English, and which does its own work in the soul is forlorn hope. Locked away in these simple terms is a story of misunderstanding, and the price that hard won hope levies on those who wish to find it. The original meaning of this phrase in its Dutch iteration is that of a ‘lost heap’ (verloren hoop), a band of soldiers sent as an advance party, in the understanding that they will sustain dreadful losses. A more common term for this is the ‘shock troop’, those sent forward to absorb the fiercest of fire, to surrender their welfare (and lives) in the interests of a wider victory. A repeated mistranslation of hoop to signify ‘hope’ meant that this phrase eventually came to occupy its own territory as ‘forlorn hope’, the idea of disappointed ambitions and frustrated objectives.
This linguistic accident, this mis-step in etymology has yielded us a word which carries a bloodied wealth of worth and consolation. What better way to encapsulate the Christian concept of true gospel hope than with a word bound up with temporal wastage, with temporary setback, with the drama of losing all to gain the prize. We so often experience and embody forlorn hope, both in its statement and in its story. Our dreams and aspirations for the future so regularly seem to be dashed against the unforgiving shore of the future, our progress is halting and counter-intuitive, and the ways of God in the world can often be seen through the lens of setback.
Ours is often the stunned silence at the side of the shaven Aslan, the weeping second day sojourn at the tomb of the un-resurrected Christ, the suppressed victory of a people awaiting the eschaton – ‘all more lonely and hopeless and horrid than I know how to describe’ (C.S Lewis). Our best efforts are stymied, the advance of the kingdom pushed back, gospel workers harassed and exposed to harm, and all that we dream of beset by the seemingly mercurial whim of fortune.
Such wasted hope, however, often gains us ground. The casualties of this day, the momentary defeats, the punctuation of our progress by covering fire from enemy lines might wound us, but they will not ultimately break us. All the purposes of heaven lie behind our endeavours, the bedrock certainty of a risen Saviour raises his standard above the mangled heaps of ruined advances – his is the final victory, and he deigns to share it with us, sometimes on the very basis of our losses.
The poem below reflects on these themes, seeking to shore up my own heart and hopefully the wounds of any who read it. In spite of severe setback, and every incentive to give up, forlorn hope might be the very means by which we see the victory of Jesus brought to bear:
This ventured hope is left a bloodied heap
jamming the door, straddling a threshold,
a shock troop, bullet scythed, full stopped. We weep,
that gulled, we deciphered peace, faintly told
between the lines, misread ellipsis for
morse, signalling coming day. But dashed now,
in retreat, we hesitate to pray or
summon sun from blood flaring sky, allow
no new horizon to our frighted nerve.
This first-fruit loss, portends for us that all
our future pressing on will only serve
to drive us back, that our resolve must fall.
But regrouped, we will ration faith again
that hope remains, among this hope’s remains.