Phil Gulley delivers keynote at Spirit & Place Festival’s Kick-off Celebration

Last week, Spirit & Place Festival hosted a day of fun and learning for its partners and collaborators at The Garfield Park Arts Center. 2013 Festival partners and collaborators gathered to gain insights on what it takes to plan a memorable festival event including workshops on collaboration, audience engagement, promotions, branding, Eventbrite registration system, and program evaluation. (We also offered everyone an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and take a risk by eating a cricket and/or a hot pepper lollipop!) We invited our Advisory Board, committee members, volunteers, and community leaders to join us for lunch where the highlight was an inspirational speech delivered by Phil Gulley. Phil, an accomplished and well-loved Indiana author, mesmerized the audience with his take on risk. His speech was so captivating that we received several requests from our partners and collaborators to provide them a copy of his words of wisdom!  So if you missed listening to Phil Gulley’s uplifting speech, we’ve got you covered! 

Phil Gulley

Phil Gulley

By Philip Gulley

It is a pleasure to be here with you at the kickoff event for Spirit & Place, to think with you about risk, our topic for this year’s festival.  I learned about this theme last fall, when Pamela Blevins Hinkle visited our Quaker meeting, Fairfield Friends, and mentioned the theme.  She said, “We want to make sure we don’t just talk about risk, we want to do something risky.”

I said, “Well, since it’s a festival about spirituality, why don’t you invite an atheist or agnostic to be your main speaker.”

That would certainly be interesting, wouldn’t it?  That would be like, hmmm, let’s see, that would be like inviting Donald Trump to give a workshop on humility, or asking Rush Limbaugh to speak on introspection.

“Invite an atheist to speak about spirituality,” I told Pam.  “Invite Sam Harris, who wrote The End of Faith.  That might be interesting.”

But she didn’t invite Sam Harris.  Perhaps she didn’t want to risk it.

At least at first.  Then she raised the idea with the Spirit & Place Steering Committee, on which my friend and former pastor, Jim Mulholland, serves.  So they looked into it.  Unfortunately, atheists and agnostics are very expensive.  In fact, it’s ungodly what they charge.  But God works in mysterious ways, and by coincidence, Jim was becoming an agnostic just as Pam was looking for one, and was willing to talk about it for free.

I’ll think you’ll agree with me that it was very Christian of Jim to do that, and I’m very proud of him, and proud of Pam, too, for her wise stewardship of Spirit & Place funds.  Let’s give Jim and Pam a round of applause!

When Pam phoned to see if I would speak about risk, I almost declined the invitation, because I’m not a big believer in risk.  Risk, my parents taught me, is just another word for irresponsibility.  Safety, security, and certainty were our family creeds, the song to which we marched in careful cadence.  Treasury bonds, suspenders and belts, ladders stored under beds to escape a house fire, deadbolt locks, electric smoke alarms with battery back-ups, a box of baking soda next to the stove, flameless candles, non-slip flowers adhered to the bathtub, turning the Christmas tree lights on for one half hour a day under parental supervision, a water hose at the ready, clean the lint trap after every use and the dryer duct once a month, covers on electrical outlets, committing to memory the Poison Control hotline number (1-800-222-1222).

Those were my people.  That was how I was raised.  Risk was a four-letter word.  I was visiting my parent’s last night and they asked me what I was doing today.  I didn’t have the heart to tell them I was talking about risk.  I didn’t want to disappoint them.  And yet here I am, drawn to this topic, the forbidden fruit of risk, with Pam urging me to take a bite.  “You will not die,” she told me, “for God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

So this morning, we bite into the most forbidden fruit of all─risk.  The author, Anais Nin, who wrote dirty books like The Delta of Venus and Henry and June and A Spy in the House of Love, books I wanted to read as a teenager that weren’t available in the Danville Public Library, said, “the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

That, of course, is why we are here today.  Because the risk of remaining tight in the bud is more painful than the risk it takes to blossom.  Spirit & Place can be like one of a thousand events that grow mundane and predictable, they can offer thoughts that provoke no one, put forth timid ideas, and remain safely confined behind the guarded gates of orthodoxy.  There are thousands of events, and tens of thousands of spiritual communities who fear the new, who equate innovation with sin, who remain tight in the bud of frozen, tired dogma.  Spirit & Place can be like them, and people will still participate, churches and foundations will still sponsor our events, but over time the light will dim, the edge will dull, the fresh will grow stale.

Or we can blossom.  What would it mean for Spirit & Place to blossom?  Think year-round events.  Think of college scholarships for bright IPS students.  Take the Place piece of Spirit & Place seriously and urge local architects to create beautiful, affordable homes for the working poor.  Why can’t the poor also have beauty?  Why must they be consigned to vinyl villages and condemned homes?

With escalating college costs, and continuing education beyond the reach of so many, think of retired people with so much to teach and young people with so much to learn, and bring them together.  Imagine what that would do for our spirits and places!  And as long as we have Indiana University in our family, let us urge it to create graduate programs in world improvement.

You might think that is beyond our purview, beyond our charter.  But I contend that when this venture was named Spirit & Place, the door swung wide open.

So let us risk.

Let us have atheists and scientists and artists join the conversation.  Let us move beyond churches and synagogues, for they have no corner on the truth.  Let us delve into politics, for that is the coin of this realm.  To ignore it is to ignore the very enterprise we have formed to shape and govern our world.

Let us risk.

Let us suggest and implement models for elder care, so that our parents and grandparents, who have spent their lives in fruitful labor, can live affordably, with dignity.  Let us study those nations who have done that well, and shamelessly steal their best ideas.

Let us risk.

Let us have honest talk, free thought, and mature minds.  But let us also have noble, creative work.  Let us take seriously the wide expanses of spirits and places, remembering that because they stretch to the horizon, so too should our interests and passions.

Let us risk.

The world has had enough of solemn religion, of tired men speaking their tired gospels.  Let us believe in the gospel of cheerfulness, the gospel of good humor, the gospel of good health.  Let us believe in the gospel of good houses and good schools.  Let us believe in the gospel of intelligence.  For in the end, intelligence and love will be the levers that lift our world.

Let us risk.

Let us seek the best of each field, the finest minds in every discipline, let us polish and treasure whatever gems of truth they offer.  Let us be wary of any religion that demands obedience, any leader that requires subservience, and any truth that cannot bear examination.

Let us risk.

What if Spirit & Place wasn’t an event, but a movement, an experiment in thinking and dreaming, which, when it grew, became a feast where many came and ate and thrived.

What if it were a greenhouse, where bold ideas took root and grew, so that twenty years from now, people would point back to this movement and said, “It all began there.”

Let us risk, but as we risk, let us remember that Spirit & Place is a perennial, not an annual.  It cannot, it must not, be measured by what it does in any one year, but what it could accomplish over the span of years.

Let us do more than stimulate the minds of the well-to-do, let us be an encouragement to all.

Let us not fear risk, let us not with timid spirits worry that we are too radical.  Either the future will verify us or prove us wrong.  But even if we are proven wrong, that is still far better than being proven indolent and unconcerned.

As for places and spirits, let us say with Thomas Paine, “the world is my country, to do good my religion.”

Let us risk to blossom, for remaining tight in the bud is far too great a danger.

Thank you for having me.  I look forward to this season of risk.


One thought on “Phil Gulley delivers keynote at Spirit & Place Festival’s Kick-off Celebration

  1. Maybe we should invite all the politicians to this event. They are the most risk averse group in the country! Do you suppose they are capable of learning something?

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