BY WILLIAM JOHNSSON
A riverboat cruise through the Netherlands and Belgium when the tulips are at their glorious best—what could be more enchanting?
Enchanting indeed. Acres of blooms in a patchwork of living red, white, yellow, orange, and purple. But these flowers weren’t planted to grace the florist shops of countries far away; we learned that they would be sliced off while at their best so that the plant could pour its energy into the bulb. It was the bulbs, not the flowers, that would be shipped far away.
Millions of blooms just coming to their peak were being air freighted every day to the world’s markets. These blooms, however, hadn’t been cut from the farms. They grew under cover in huge hydroponic nurseries—automated, computer controlled. Day by day they budded and developed as they were moved in batches, shunted from one area to another, fed with water laden with carefully calibrated nutrients. When the time was right, they moved into the production bay where huge machines sliced away the bulb from the stem, sorted and gathered them together, and bundled them ready for their flight around the world.
Amazing! Enchanting! But that wasn’t all. Our tour took us to the famous “bridge too far” of the Allies’ attack on Hitler’s empire, and to the old city of Bruges, with roads unchanged from the Middle Ages. We rambled down cobblestone streets, dodging bicycles that came at us at high speed and halted for no one. Meanwhile, clattering horse-drawn carriages driven by drivers wearing top hats threatened life and limb.
But that wasn’t all. The best was yet to come. Unexpected, unadvertised, a big surprise awaited.
Dining on the riverboat featured tables of six. The second evening of the cruise, Noelene and I happened to join two other couples—Bill and Cleo from Kentucky and Don and Clara from Northern California. Retired from the military, Bill devotes his energies to providing Gideon Bibles for military personnel. Don, a retired educator with a strong sense of social justice, has a wealth of stories from his life experiences.
Although we three couples came together without any previous acquaintance, before long we were swapping stories and kidding one another as though we were meeting together for a reunion. Time at the table flew by; before we knew it, all the other tables had emptied and the staff were resetting the tables.
After that first encounter, we looked for each other every evening. The dynamic of the initial meeting grew even stronger. People at the other tables figured we must be friends of long standing to be having such a good time together. The staff grew accustomed to ours being the last table to leave.
The second or third evening, the bonding grew stronger when the other Bill suggested that we have a grace for the meal. That established the pattern. And a funny thing happened: each evening, drink waiters brought along wine selections for the meal. For the first few nights our new friends took a little wine, but by the final night they waved the drink waiters away.
So, to our last meal together—photographs, sharing information so we could keep in touch. It was a lovely evening but bittersweet because it would be our final time together. Then, in a beautiful act of love, we clasped hands as we joined in a benediction.
It really happened. I wonder what other passengers thought of the six people at our table sitting with heads bowed and hands joined! What’s with those people at that table. Are they having a séance or something?
After the cruise we stayed in touch. We all agreed that, with all the great sights and sounds of the cruise, the best part by far was the evening meals together.
For many people who take a vacation, their experience revolves around two questions: Where did you go? What did you see? For Noelene and me, however, more important than the where and the what is the who—who did we meet?
In India, that land of ancient thought, people long ago learned the value of the gift of presence. They had and still have a word for it: darshan. Darshan means more than meeting a great person, more than the conversation that might transpire at the meeting. Darshan signifies the gift of just being there—being with.
For a lot of people in America, life has become so crazy that they can hardly grasp this gift of presence. They have become used to filling every crack of silence with sound. Talk, talk, talk. Talking, not listening. Thinking about what they are going to say next, not about what the other person is telling them.
Degraded discourse, that’s what it is. Talk, talk, talk, all about themselves.
When you are with someone you love, the words don’t matter very much. You don’t have to say anything at all. Presence fills in the silence.
The gift of presence is everywhere around us, and it’s free. Every person—every person—has a story.
People are interesting.
People are funny.
People are wonderful.
All we have to do to enjoy the gift of presence is open ourselves to everyone we meet. Every day, every one. The gift comes to us.
Some years ago, the German scholar Martin Buber wrote a small book that had a lasting impact. The title translates into English as I and Thou. Simply written, the book speaks truth powerfully. Regard everyone you meet as a thou not an it. Open up yourself to the wonderful gift of shared humanity. Then you will begin to live as a human being.
Right on, Martin! That’s what our tulip cruise underscored in letters of living colors.
I believe that there’s more, much more, than this life. I believe that God has put eternity in our hearts, that every now and then it breaks out and gives us a glimpse of what life will be on the other side.
There will be singing there, lots of it.
And there will be silence, praise God, but silence filled with the presence of others.
And with the supreme Presence.