Tag Archive | Evaluation

My Reflections on the World’s Largest Cabbage

On the radio this evening, I heard an interview with the man who grew the newly-crowned World’s Largest Cabbage.  The large, leafy head weighed in at the Alaska State Fair at 138.25 pounds, he said, and he emphasized the decimals, as if the extra quarter pound is going to be what keeps his produce on the largest-cabbage throne for many years to come.  If I heard correctly, it measured something like seven feet from the tip of the leaves on one side to the tip of the leaves on the other side.  It was a big cabbage.

In the interview with the man who grew the record-setting vegetable, the reporter started by asking the obvious question:  how does one grow such a large head of cabbage?  The man replied with all due humility, saying that the real advantage has to do with the unique conditions in Alaska.  Since the sun is up almost around the clock, he said, the leaves just keep growing and growing, never stopping to rest through the night like the lazier tropical specimens would.  The reporter pressed him a little bit, pointing out that all of his neighbors would be growing these enormous cabbages if it only had to do with the midnight sun.  Then, he conceded that his success in raising the cabbage also had to do with his own efforts.  He said that, if you want to grow a big cabbage like his, you can’t take off on a weekend fishing trip, or a week-long hunting excursion, like some of his neighbors do.  Instead, you have to tend the plant every day, watering and fertilizing and addressing even the smallest signs of pests, disease, or other threats.

The reporter moved on by the end of the interview to ask what would become of this large cabbage.  Would it be good to eat, she asked?  The man said it would; you would just have to peel off the outer leaves, just like on any other head of cabbage, and the inner parts would probably taste just fine.  He went on to explain that most of the fresh-food entries in the state fair are collected on the last day by local food pantries and other programs, who gratefully distribute the award-winning produce to people who need food.  However, something as big as a 138-pound cabbage is a bit too cumbersome for those groups, so it will probably end up in the wilderness somewhere, feeding some lucky herd of wildlife before what remains decomposes to feed the microbes in the dirt.

I can’t get this story of the record-setting cabbage out of my mind.  The story evokes two questions of polarities for me as a gardener.  For one, the story of this cabbage speaks to the question of what makes for successful gardening.  Is it the hard work of the gardener that determines whether the crops will produce and the flowers will bloom?  Or is success the result of the dumb luck of the location and the weather?  And the second question this story brings up for me has to do with the purpose of gardening. Is it more noble to use our land, water, and fertilizer, as well as our time and muscles, to grow only produce which can provide nutrition to our bodies?  Or should we dedicate resources simply to coax from the earth beautiful flowers and plants which have no utility other than to bring joy to our minds and souls?

The world’s largest cabbage exists in a tension somewhere in the middle of both of these extremes.  As the man who grew it admitted, the cabbage did not attain its record-breaking size solely through the good luck of being planted in a place where the sun barely sets.  But neither did the meticulous attention, knowledge, and labor of the gardener alone create this record-setting phenomenon.  Both location and hard work were needed to bring this cabbage from a tiny seed to the biggest specimen of its kind that the world has ever seen.  And similarly, this cabbage was not grown strictly to provide vitamins and fiber and good flavor for the gardener.  But it also could not be considered simply an aesthetic creation.  Its purpose was neither utility nor beauty; it was something else entirely.

I never thought I would string these words together to form a sentence, but I have to admit that I can relate personally to this cabbage.  On the first question of purpose, I cannot believe that I am granted space on this planet only to be useful to other people, to the world as a whole, and to the God who created me.  The joy I feel when I witness beauty, when I experience love, and when I glimpse the mysteries of God must have an intrinsic value.  Human life cannot find its entire purpose solely in its utility or solely in its pleasure; our purpose is at least a balance of those two, and perhaps even something else entirely.

And any success at achieving life’s purposes is similarly complex.  A number of years ago, my sister tried to convince me that she and her husband had earned everything they have.  I know that they have both worked harder than some people do.  But if I am honest, I can’t buy my sister’s claim.  I have worked, too; I have worked harder than some, but not as hard as others.  But where I am in life also has to do with the location in which I was born.  I am not talking only about my birth in a rural town in the American West in the late 20th century, although those facts of location all contributed in important ways to who I am now.  I am also talking about the social location of my birth.  I am what I am in part due to the dumb luck that I was born to parents who live solidly in the middle-class, and who have worked for many years to maintain the trappings of that social position.  I am what I am because my family values education, and there was never any question that I would attend college.  I am what I am because my parents also value freedom, so any adventure I wanted to take was granted full support as well as a ride to the airport.  And I am what I am because I have never had to question whether my parents love me, even when my education and my freedom have been expressed through decisions they could not understand.  Everything I am is not due solely to the luck of the location of my birth, but I will never claim that I have earned everything I have through my own work.

So I live with that cabbage in the middle of tension.  My understanding of human purpose is caught somewhere between utilitarian function and aesthetic beauty.  What I am now is a result of the luck of the location where I was planted as well as the attention, knowledge, and labor I have put forth as I have gardened my own life.  And 1200 or so words later, I am still fascinated by the world’s largest cabbage.

The Experts

(c) 2012, Eric Beene

Last week, I found out that a committee of our denomination was meeting in our city.  This particular committee is charged with writing and administering the exams which all Presbyterian ministers must pass to be ordained.  The members of the committee came here from all over the country for their meeting.  Wanting to be hospitable to these travelers, and knowing that the congregation I serve as pastor would likewise want to be welcoming to people who were a long way from home, I invited the committee members to worship with us.  In fact, I offered to have a member of my congregation pick them up from their hotel in the church van to make sure they could get to worship.

I was pleased when they accepted.  Then, I figured out what I had done.  The committee includes several people with advanced degrees in theology, the Bible, and worship and the sacraments.  They teach this stuff in seminaries and colleges.  They supervise doctoral candidates, they go to conferences, and they publish papers.  I cyberstalked one person on the committee and found out he can read and teach Ugaritic.  The committee also includes pastors with a whole lot more experience than I have and lay people who undoubtedly have experience with some clergy who do their work well and others who do their work poorly.  And they were all going to attend the worship service which I would be leading, listen to the sermon which I would be preaching, and receive the sacrament of communion as I administered it.

I didn’t sleep well on Saturday night.  The members of my congregation noticed on Sunday morning that I was pacing around the sanctuary and my office, talking with them with a rare urgency in my voice, and fidgeting with details like the precise placement of the pitcher and chalice on the communion table.  Well, o.k., so that fidgeting with details is normal for me, but I was more obsessive than usual.

To continue with the gardening theme of this blog, I realized it would be like preparing to welcome a committee of people to look at your flower beds which included people with advanced degrees in botany, soil science, and landscape design.  The group would include people who had written some of those books and articles on gardening, both from a scientific and an aesthetic perspective, as well as people who had successfully tended their own gardens since long before you took up the craft.  And it would even include people who could tell you precisely the correct way to hold your hand rake or trowel as you till the soil.

And over the past two days, I have thought about this metaphor.  If I had such a group of people visiting my flower beds and vegetable garden, would I really care how they evaluate my work?  Frankly, I probably would not, because my purpose in gardening has little to do with them.  I tend my flower beds because I appreciate beauty, and I want to witness beauty, and even participate in it, as it grows and changes through the seasons.  I grow vegetables and herbs because my family and I can learn from them about our dependence on basic yet mysterious things:  the unseen complexities of microbes in the soil, for instance, and the unpredictable providence of sun and storms.  I mow my lawn because the work itself is good for my body and my spirit; the act gives my muscles a chance to work, and my mind a chance to wander for a while, and my heart a chance to beat a little bit faster.

Of course, I am aware that people walk by on the street and neighbors look out their windows.  If I were to win the garden club’s “Yard of the Month” award, I would be pleased.  Sometimes I will tell my wife I have to go work in the yard because I am embarrassed by our unmowed grass and weed-filled flower beds.  But really, I don’t do the work because I covet anyone’s favorable evaluation or fear anyone’s negative judgement.  The value of the work is intrinsic to the work itself; the most beautiful things I produce in my yard work have little to do with what other people can see.

And I think that, ideally, the work of worship in the church is similar.  When it is done well, worship does not accomplish anything that can be evaluated.  Public worship allows the communities of people who do it to bear witness to and even participate in the beauty which is all over the world God created, and it allows people to see growth and change with the seasons of the life God has given us.  It allows us to confess that our lives depend on things that we cannot see and do not understand which are provided beyond our own efforts.  It gives our bodies, minds, and hearts a chance to do work they would not otherwise not do: to stretch farther, wander deeper, and beat faster.

The experts in gardening as well as worship are helpful because they can provide knowledge and advice.  They can point out how to arrange the plants to best take advantage of the light, water, and soil I have, and they can point out how to best order the words and music and silence to express the praise we feel.  Even the neighbors and strangers who walk by on the street can help.  They make me aware that I can help others by sharing with them things which I think are beautiful, and they make us aware that we can help the world by sharing the gifts which lead us to be grateful to God.  But neither the experts nor the neighbors are the audience of our worship; I think it was Kierkegaard who pointed out that God is our audience as we enact our worship.  And so, just as I do not plant my garden so it can be evaluated, worship cannot be evaluated by anyone other than the God whom we praise.

When I explained on Sunday to one of the church members that I did not need to be nervous because of who would be worshiping with us that day, she sympathetically reminded me that I was nervous because I am human.  I know in my mind what worship is all about, but my mind cannot control my feelings.  But I wonder if instead I should seek to be nervous like that every time I lead worship.  I only pray that God appreciated what we all did together on Sunday morning.