The Stewardship and Inspiration of the Earth

Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting

Pastor Bob Henry

May 5, 2019


Job 12:7-8 (NRSV)

7 “But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
    the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
8 ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
    and the fish of the sea will declare to you.


Some of you may be a bit confused about why we are celebrating Earth Sunday on Cinco de Mayo instead of April 22 as it usually is celebrated. Well, April 22 landed on the day after Easter this year, so we moved it to a later date not to miss it.  As Quakers and Christians, the stewardship of the Earth is or should be very important to us.  It is actually covered in one of our distinctives or what we like to call our S.P.I.C.E.S. (actually the last “S” of SPICES is referenced to as both “stewardship” and “sustainability” depending on who you are talking with.) I think both are important.

Sadly, too often we only think of stewardship in relation to issues of money and forget that biblical stewardship originally was the conducting, supervising, and management of the Earth. 

Remember in the beginning of the Bible (Genesis 1:28) where it says,

“And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion [a better translation would read - be stewards] over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Many scholars call Genesis 1:28 the cultural mandate. It’s the original call to stewardship. It’s where God first calls humanity to cultivate and care for her creation using the unique gifts and talents she has endowed to every person.  As Friends, we uphold and even promote this mandate in our own statements. On the back of the bulletin is the Statement on Earth Care that is shared among Friends.) 

“The earth we share is limited in its capacity to support life and to provide resources for our survival.  The environment that has provided sustenance for generations must be protected for generations to come.  We have an obligation, therefore, to be responsible stewards of the earth, to restore its natural habitat where it has been damaged, and to maintain its vitality.  Friends’ historic testimonies on simplicity have long stressed that the quality of life does not depend upon immodest consumption.  The urgency of the threat to the environment cannot be overstated.”

That statement I just read is on the back of your bulletins this morning and comes from Friends Committee on National Legislation policy statement (from 1987), it is also cited in the Friends Committee on Unity with Nature statement.

We are mandated by God and our Quaker Faith to be good stewards, people responsible for the care of the Earth. 

I remember one of my first times hearing Quaker Richard Foster speak at a Renovaré Conference he shared with us the three great “books” that guide our lives. He spoke of…

·        the book of scripture,

·        the book of experience,

·        and the book of nature.

I personally have found my faith deepened and my life altered or changed by spending time in the stewardship of the earth. Making time to take in the book of nature has not only been therapy for me, it has given me insights to my own spiritual path, and at times has calmed my soul and given me peace.

From doing the hard work of tending to the weeds in my life, to learning about parenting from watching birds, to sensing hope in a sunrise or thankfulness that the day is done when watching the sun set.

The list could go on and on.  But if there is one thing, I have learned it is that to be a citizen of this Earth means we have a responsibility to take care of it, to learn from it, and allow it to be a bearer of peace in our lives.

A book that I quote from often and has had a profound voice in my life is Quaker Catherine Whitmire’s book, Practicing Peace.  It was in her book that I was first introduced to a Quaker that I have come to highly respect and learn from. This person is Jim Corbett. (Has anyone heard that name before?)

Some consider Jim a philosopher, spiritual warrior, and even some consider him a modern Quaker prophet.  Catherine Whitmire introduced me to Jim in her chapter titled Practicing Peace in our Everyday Lives with the Earth.

As I have further explored Jim and his life, I have been amazed not only by his story, but the role that nature, the animals and the earth had in helping him see his higher calling. Much like Job in our scripture text from today, Jim was about asking the animals (specifically the goats and the bees), the plants of the earth, and the fish of the sea to teach him and inspire him. I consider Jim’s connection to the Earth both prophetic and a call to the importance of allowing nature to inspire us and helping us find ways to respond. 

Since most people have not heard of Jim Corbett, I want to share some of his story with you this morning. It is important that we have contemporary Quakers as well as historic figures to be inspired by, especially for our younger generations who will continue the Quaker faith.

Arden Buck has beautifully shared some of Jim’s story in a Friends Journal article. This morning, I want to highlight some it so we too may be inspired by Jim’s life.    

Jim Corbett was a brilliant and original thinker and writer; he was a fearless activist, who insisted on putting his Quaker principles into action rather than just talking about them. He was also a rancher, a goatherder, and an expert at living simply and close to the Earth.

Corbett grew up in Wyoming, a descendent of Blackfoot Native Americans, Kentucky pioneers, and Ozark Mountain mule traders. As a child he taught himself to be comfortable with discomfort – at ease with hunger, cold, pain – and to detach himself from social expectations. A convinced Quaker, Corbett was a quiet, soft-spoken, unassuming person. For much of their life he and his wife Pat lived very simply in an old salvaged house trailer.

As a student, Corbett breezed through Colgate University in three years and then went on to earn a master’s in philosophy at Harvard in only one year. (WOW!)  Throughout his life, he held a variety of jobs including philosophy professor, librarian, park ranger, cowboy, anti-war organizer, and Quaker activist. But he was always a rancher at heart. For a while, he lived with a group of semi-nomadic goatherders in Mexico. 

Catharine Whitmire pointed out that “Corbett spent years listening to the earth and its innumerable creatures as he rambled through the arid but beautiful Sonoran Desert in Arizona, herding goats. Of his time following the flock through barren wilderness he wrote:

“Leisure, solitude, dependence on uncontrolled natural rhythms, alert, concentration on present events, long nights devoted to quiet watching – little wonder that so many religions originated among herders and so many religious metaphors are pastoral.”

Jim Corbett was known for what he called, “Goatwalking.” Arden Buck says he developed it into an art.

He would wander the desert with goats for weeks at a time.  The goats would forage as they went, and Jim would drink their milk and forage as well. It was a way for him to go on solitary meditative retreats without having to carry any food or water.  He pointed out that this way of living was pastoral nomadism. It is how the Plains Indians lived, and it’s how we are told that Moses led his people in the desert for 40 years. Many Bedouin and Mongolian herders still live this way today.

Corbett saw goatwalking as a form of errantry, which he defined as “going outside of society to live according to one’s inner leadings.”

Corbett even invited people to join him on his goatwalking journeys utilizing the same rules. No food or water, except the occasional oats and raisins. He taught people how to live off the earth, to understand goats, and become companions with both. Even though people were drawn to this extreme experience, Corbett knew that it was almost impossible for most modern urban humans (like you and me) to understand the idea of living in communion with our natural world.

One thing that I found interesting is that Jim said not to bring reading or writing materials when experiencing nature. He said, “Just be there and soak in your experience of the wilderness. 

I don’t know about you, but I think one of the biggest reasons we cannot connect to the earth and nature anymore is because of technology.  Jim didn’t mention that, but if reading and writing were out, so was technology.    

A couple years ago, our son, Alex, was sent as the youth representative for the Northwest Yearly Meeting on a spiritual formation retreat with another Yearly Meeting. He flew to Colorado, and then joined a llama pack and several other youth and adults on a journey into the Medicine Bow Range and up to the top of Medicine Bow Peak. Much like Corbett’s goatwalking, Alex became the friend of a herd of llama.  They ate very simply, did some scavenging, and slept out in the wild. Listening to him explain the conversations he had with the participants was amazing. As someone that is going into Digital Media Arts and will spend his life behind a screen, this really had a profound impact on Alex. He learned things about himself, about others, about nature, about struggle, about accomplishment, and about God.

Similarly, Jim Corbett also learned a lot about himself and others in nature. Actually, nature brought him face-to-face with a new calling.  After moving to Tucson, Arizona Jim developed his bee hive and goat husbandry techniques for use in poor countries. He saw his connection with nature helpful to other cultures but didn’t fully realize what he was learning about community and relationships and helping people in his current place. 


At the edge of his property was built a fence to deter illegal border crossings. Something Jim never really thought about. This was the early 80’s and sadly we were backing violent governments in Central America who were killing and torturing labor leaders, students, church activists, and their relatives.  Individuals and even entire families were fleeing across Jim’s property.  He stayed out of the politics and really wasn’t interested in refugee work.    


But it wasn’t long until Jim heard of a Salvadoran refugee being caught by Border Patrol on his property. This caused things to hit closer to home.  Jim felt compelled to inquire about the refugee and follow him to an immigration detention center in California. Jim’s eyes were opened when he found hundreds of detained Central Americans in this detention facility who had fled war and persecution in their home countries.  


Jim had learned from goatwalking and bee keeping, and living close to the earth, a deeper understanding of humans and the need to help each other and take care of meeting our neighbor’s basic of needs.  Goats and bees had inspired the need for a greater community of love and peace.  


Soon Jim teamed up with John M. Fife III, a Presbyterian Pastor in Tucson who helped him begin to harbor refugees. They organized a system for passing, or maybe we should say “herding” and “keeping,” illegal immigrants from church to church across the country.  Corbett mailed 500 Quaker Meetings and groups seeking their help in the creation of an underground railroad to Canada. Jim Corbett is considered by many today a modern-day Levi Coffin. Hundreds of Quaker meetings and other churches joined the effort. During the 1980’s Corbett and his sanctuary helped free thousands of Central American refugees and helped them build communities of safety. 


Arden Buck speaking of Jim’s writing said, he…


“developed a philosophy that embraced not only humans, but all life on Earth. He extended Quaker principles to apply to all of Earth’s creatures and ultimately to all of creation – there is that of God in all nature.  Regarding environmental preservation, he followed a third way between the two extremes of exploiter and environmentalist by advocating that humans and nature can coexist respectfully.”


As I have been processing all that I have learned from Jim (and there is so much more to glean from his life and work). I return now to my own experience. I have consistently taken walks every day for about a year through my neighborhood, through parks, through the gardens at Newfields.  I have watched and learned the patterns of ducks and geese, and the great blue heron.  I have watched the death and resurrection of the plants, the changing of the trees, the invasiveness of weeds that take over, and the rhythm and beauty of the sun’s rising and setting.  It was Dan Rains last year, who challenged me (and many of you) to look up at the clouds and the patterns and see to see the change they represent.   I learned that I prefer a natural path over cement walkways and roads.  That the sound of moving water can be healing, and that squirrels are hard workers, but still have fun.  I watch out my back window at the beauty of the birds on my bird feeders, how finches consider thistle seed the crack of their world – always coming back for another hit until it is completely gone.  How the sound of the birds chirping becomes a song of praise to my soul. 


I guess what I am saying is that God is still using the Creation to teach and inspire. We just need to be willing to get out of our homes, out of our cars, off our devices, and spend some quality time in nature.  It will change you.  It will inspire you.  It will give you hope. 


As for Jim Corbett, sadly he died on August 2, 2001 at the age of 67 from a rare brain disease.  His legacy still lives on today with the Saguaro-Juniper Corporation, a group of shareholders who bought land in Hot Springs Canyon, Arizona working with disadvantaged and disenfranchised people. They characterize themselves as stewards or even servants of the land, the plants, and the animals.  Jim has two books, Goatwalking: A Guide to Wildland Living and A Sanctuary for All Life which document his learnings and life. 


Now, on the back of your bulletins are some queries to ponder.  Let us sit in the silence (maybe listen for the creation outside the window speaking its praise for this day).