‘Commitment for Life’: three words that to many people simply mean the United Reformed Church’s world development programme. But if you met those words outside that context, most of us would probably run a mile. Who wants to be committed to something for life? No right thinking advertiser would think of that for a slogan. They’d certainly go for something very different. No-one wants to be committed for life.
In the world of commercial fund-raising these days you’d be thought foolish if you try to sign anyone up to something that was going to be a lifetime commitment. Much better to suggest they send a quick text and give £5. Quick and easy, and you will hardly notice the difference. Or perhaps you could do something exciting, a once in a lifetime opportunity to free-fall from an aeroplane or abseil down the church spire. It’ll be a day to remember, and you’ll be famous for a moment, but then it will be over. Or you could sign up for one of our crowdfunding projects – just this once, just for a week, or just a season.
And of course every gift to the poor, every action taken to make the world a better place, is worthwhile, and even the tiniest gift can have a huge impact. But, what does it really take to change the world, and to change it for good, to make a change that we will notice in our lifetimes? It takes a commitment and it takes our whole lives. It takes people who will say, ‘I will give whatever it takes as long as it takes to make a real difference. I’ll give now and next week and every week I draw breath and when I die you will find that in my will there’s another gift. And I will give because I’m committed to Jesus Christ who said that the poor would find blessing, and I know that with my whole life and all I am ever given I need to help bring that blessing’.
Commitment for Life is one of the most counter-cultural statements that our church has ever made. It runs counter to the way most expert fundraisers think you should do it. It runs counter to the way we do things now mostly in church. It runs counter to what most people say is the best we can expect of others or ourselves. And yet, it is profoundly Gospel. Jesus gave his life for God’s people. And Jesus asks of us our whole lives. And the amazing thing is, when you follow Jesus Christ, when you see what God has done in him, then making a commitment for life does not seem strange at all, just the natural way to respond to God’s grace.
One of the most striking pieces in the Bible is the commitment that Ruth made to Naomi. Nobody could have expected a Gentile girl to stay with her mother-in-law after they had both been widowed, to go to what was for her a foreign land and to stick with her new family. No-one could have expected that. Not even Naomi expected that. She assumed that now things were different, now the good days were over, that Ruth would go back where she came from. Naomi even told her that she didn’t expect her to follow, that it was quite understandable if she wanted to leave. But then, in poetry to rival Shakespeare, Ruth says:
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die –
there will I be buried.
People have seen these words as models for the deepest kind of human love and commitment ever since. They’ve been read at weddings and blessings, at baptisms and ordinations, at confirmations and bar mitzvahs. These words are all the more powerful because they are counter-cultural. In a world where we are encouraged to make our own way, in a world where we’re encouraged not to ‘over commit’, in a world afraid of giving away too much, these words say something simply and absolutely stunning.
And of course commitment of this kind is so wonderful because of what it can do. Knowing that God is committed in love to us transforms our lives. Giving our commitment to others can transform us and the lives of others too. Commitment for life can set any of us free to grow and flourish in ways that the fragile uncertainties of this world cannot.
The Commitment for Life programme has been a wonderful way in which the United Reformed Church has said we are committed to ending poverty. We will keep on giving, in a sustained, predictable and committed way, for the sake of those whose lives might be transformed. You might say, ‘It’s not the most exciting way of giving’. You might say, ‘It’s not quite so much fun as the occasional bungee jump’. You might think it’s rather pedestrian, just promising to keep on giving, predictably, boringly, reliably…but it’s this kind of giving that is most effective in overcoming poverty. And that, after all, is what Jesus calls us to do.
There’s a theologian called James Alison who says that sometimes people complain that Christian worship, and even Christianity itself, is boring. But he says that actually that’s part of the truth of it. Being a Christian is about knowing that God is with us for the long term, and that we are in this too, for all our days, just quietly, determinedly, and faithfully, getting on with it. It’s a commitment for life, and being a Christian is about learning how to live in that confident, patient, and loved place.
The United Reformed Church is a small church. But we have much to celebrate. And one thing we must celebrate is our commitment to overcoming poverty. We have been brave, over twenty-five years, in giving and campaigning in a sustained, reliable and counter-cultural way, for the life of the world. Jesus promised to be with us ‘to the end of the age’. Our promise to the poor is that we will be with you, and we will be committed to transforming the world, until the end of our days. What else could it be?