EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from The Language of Blessing by Joseph Cavanaugh III


Chapter 1: The Blessing

As a child, I loved visiting my maternal grandmother on her farm in western Iowa. Grandma’s yard was bursting with vibrant flowers from early spring to late fall. She knew just how to cultivate a scene blooming with every color of the rainbow for each season. As a young child, I thought every yard should look that way.

However, the view from the house where I grew up was nothing like Grandma’s. Our poor yard was a rather forlorn and neglected affair. My father didn’t seem to care about it, other than occasionally dragging out a hose and sprinkler when our sparse grass began to turn brown in the summer’s heat.

Two huge silver maple trees, one in our front yard and one in the back, provided a bit of shade. The only other plants were white spirea (bridal wreath) bushes, which grew along the front of our house. Every home on both sides of our block seemed to have those same bushes growing in the front yard. The spirea would bloom in May for a couple of weeks, and the arching cascades of pure white flowers with their golden centers did look beautiful. But then all too soon, the display would be over until the next May.

As if our yard were not plain enough, there was an ugly scar in the front of our lawn. The rut had been worn by the neighborhood kids and my siblings as they took a shortcut from the sidewalk to the walk that led up to our house. I am sure I sometimes took the same shortcut when I was in a hurry.

But by the time I was ten, I saw that ugly rut as an insult to our yard and our home, and I decided to take on a landscaping project. I wanted to do something about that rut and at the same time bring color and beauty to our home. My plan was to plant a closely spaced row of beautiful hybrid tea roses along our front walk. No one would think about cutting through the rosebushes, which have sharp, ­one­-­inch-­long thorns! As this vision of landscaping glory began to take form in my imagination, I could see this row of roses becoming the envy of the neighborhood.

I had learned from Grandma that I’d have to choose a hardy rose that would thrive in our climate. I did my research by reading a book on roses at our local plant nursery. One picture of a particular rose jumped out at me—the Peace rose. As the Peace rosebuds begin to bloom, they are a bright yellow, but when they are fully opened, the color mutes to a pinkish cream with a radiant yellow center. The rose is so beautiful that the Germans named it Gloria Dei, or “glory to God.” In America, it was named the Peace rose, since Field Marshal Alan Brooke had refused the honor of having it named after him following the end of World War II. He said he would prefer Peace, a name that would be remembered far longer than his, and the name stuck. Since my dad served in WWII, I thought he would find that information fascinating.

As it turned out, potted Peace roses were too expensive for my limited budget. Fortunately, the helpful people at Earl May Nursery told me I could get a bare root plant that would be much cheaper. When I explained I did not yet have all the money, they were kind enough to hold five plants for me. They also explained that I would need peat moss, compost, mulch, and rose fertilizer. This was going to be much more expensive than I had hoped.

I dedicated the next month to doing any kind of odd job I could find in our neighborhood, like digging dandelions, mowing and raking yards, hauling trash, and clearing out brush. Once I had earned enough money to purchase one of the items, I would ride my bike the two miles to the nursery and then bring the purchase back to the house, where I’d hide it under our front porch.

Finally, the day came when I was able to buy the rosebushes. The next day would be ­D-­day . . . digging day. I rushed home from school that afternoon so I would have time to finish the project before my dad got home from work. I dragged everything I would need out from under the front porch. Using my ­twelve-­inch wooden ruler from school, I began to carefully measure out two feet from the front walk and two feet between the rose plants.

I would be planting the bushes a bit closer than recommended, but I wanted the roses to be an effective deterrent to anyone taking a shortcut through the lawn. All this activity began to draw a small crowd of neighborhood kids, much to my exasperation. I explained what I was doing and why I was doing it. Some of the kids asked if they could help. I not so politely declined their offer and told them that the most helpful thing they could do would be to leave me alone so I could finish before my dad got home.

They shrugged their shoulders, put their hands in their pockets, and shuffled away, glancing back at me with a “Why are you being such a jerk?” look. At that moment I really did not ­care—­I just wanted to get the plants in before Dad arrived.

After over an hour of digging in the ­hard-­packed, heavy clay soil, I had dug all five holes. Each one was eighteen inches deep and three times the width of the roots, so that the holes almost touched one another. I then carefully mixed the dirt, compost, and peat moss in the proper proportions and planted the rosebushes, making sure they were all exactly ­twenty-­four inches from the front walk and exactly ­twenty-­four inches from each other. I remember looking at the roses from every angle and deciding they looked perfectly symmetrical. As I stood there admiring my creation, I heard my dad’s car pull up and realized I had not yet put the mulch around the roses. I dropped to my knees and began quickly spreading the mulch so the roses would have that finished look.

As Dad walked up to me, he looked at the roses and then at me and asked, “What in the ­h­--- are you doing?” The tone and intensity of his question shocked me and left me struggling for breath. My response bordered on incoherent as I stammered out something about, “The rut . . . the roses . . . stop the kids from walking here.” He stood staring at the roses, silent and frowning. Finally, he said, “They look crooked to me.”

As he walked away and into the house, I stayed there on my knees, trying to comprehend what had just happened. Why do I feel so foolish and weak? In my passion to do something meaningful for my dad and our home, I had made myself very vulnerable. I was angry at myself for not anticipating his response.

I haphazardly scattered a bit more mulch around the bushes, wanting desperately to still care about the roses, to care about what I was doing. But it was as if my passion to make our home more beautiful had shriveled up in the toxicity of my dad’s words. I picked up the leftover packaging and supplies and angrily threw it all in the trash. I never planted another thing in that yard. And my father never said another word about it.

Clearly, my father missed an opportunity to affirm one of his children. So how significant was that moment? As an adult, I realize my love for growing plants never went away. It connects me somehow to God and the wonder of His creation, and I’ve always drawn energy from it. I have a deep sense of contentment and peace when I’m surrounded by living, growing ­things—­which is why, when I had an office at Gallup, I filled it with plants and relished the view from my windows, overlooking the Missouri River. I believe that if my father had affirmed and blessed me the day I planted those roses, I most likely would have chosen a career in horticulture.

I do not blame my father for the career path I chose; I am the one who tossed out everything having to do with gardening and landscaping. I understand that my father and I were not at all alike. Our differences seemed to completely confound him and, as a result, to irritate and anger him. Nevertheless, the story of the rosebushes shows just what power a word of ­blessing—­or a lack of ­one—­has in directing and shaping a life.

And what do I mean when I talk about the word blessing? For most people, a blessing is something you give before a meal or when someone sneezes. Many people may say things like, “You are such a blessing” or “That was a blessing” when referring to a positive event in their lives. However, such uses don’t convey the transforming power inherent in the way I am using the word. When speaking the language of blessing, a person communicates, affirms, and empowers ­God-­given intrinsic ­attributes—­such as personality, gifting, talents, character traits, and ­intelligences—­that he or she sees in another person. 1.1

Sadly, I hadn’t learned the language of blessing by the time I was a dad myself. I often took on a critical, ­glass­-­is-­half-empty approach with my own sons. When I asked them to do something in the yard or around the house, I inspected their efforts and pointed out what did not meet my ­expectations—­expectations I now realize I’d either communicated poorly or failed to communicate at all.

When my wife would overhear me scolding one of the boys, she’d sometimes point out that she had not heard me clearly explain those standards to my sons. I would then say something like, “I should not have to point out that kind of detail. Any fool would know that is the way it needs to be done.”

My focus was always on what needed improvement. Like most people, I found it very difficult to give to others what I had not received from my own dad.

It does not have to be like that. In the introduction, I explained how New Life, a ministry in which I helped people through relational challenges, taught me the importance of unconditional love and acceptance. It was also the first time I learned how intrinsically the blessing is tied to whether you and I feel affirmed.

My experiences at New Life also enabled me to see the reality of my life as a child and as a young adult. I had always tried to portray myself as the product of an idealistic, Midwestern, ­middle-­class experience. The reality was something very different. My father tried to be a good man, but he struggled with alcoholism and inappropriate anger. At times he felt such rage that he became physically abusive and demanded perfection. He also struggled with a bipolar disorder. I have calculated that, by the time I left home at age twenty, I had received over ten thousand statements of criticism from him and not a single word of affirmation. I believe my father had the distorted belief that if you praise a child, he will quit trying to improve. Criticism, not praise, he thought, would make a person stronger.

In his later years, when my dad was suffering from asbestosis, I would sit by his chair or bedside. By this point, I was involved in New Life Ministries and had found that I no longer needed or sought his approval. Dad seemed to realize this, which made it much easier for him to relax around me. In addition to telling him about my work and family, I occasionally shared with him what I was learning through my journey with New Life. I think I was hoping that he might find some comfort in these truths.

Because of his labored breathing, talking had become difficult for him. He would listen silently, his eyes full of deep sadness. When I finished, he would just look up and nod his head, usually saying nothing. I interpreted his silence and the nod as affirmation. One day, he suggested I invite my siblings to participate in New Life. That was the closest he ever came to telling me I had done something worthwhile.

I now know he wanted to affirm the ­God-­given blessing in me, but he had no experience or language to express it. He had not received such a blessing from his father either. I believe his lifelong inability to affirm his children tormented him until his final moments.

No parent should have to experience what my father went through.

 

You Are Blessed

Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! (Deuteronomy 30:19) 

Your words bring forth life or death. That may sound melodramatic or overstated; I assure you it is not. What you say has the power to give life to dreams and ­callings—­or to snuff them out before they have a chance to develop. 1.2

As Jesus said, “The thief comes only in order to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10, amp). One of the ways the thief (Satan) steals, kills, and destroys is through deceitful words. No wonder, then, that the tongue has the power of life and death.

Fortunately, God’s desire for each one of us is life: “I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance (to the full, till it overflows)” (John 10:10, amp). In fact, the Bible has a great deal to say about blessings; it mentions blessing or derivative terms over four hundred times! There are three Greek words in the New Testament related directly to the English word blessing:

  • Eulogeitos is an adjective meaning “well spoken of; praised.”
  • Eulogew is a verb meaning “to speak well of; to praise; to call down God’s gracious power.”
  • Eulogia is a noun meaning “praise; fine speaking.”

Although these words are Greek, the original language of the New Testament, the concept of blessing is completely Hebrew in origin, starting in the first book of the Bible. In Genesis we read about God blessing Abram (whom He would soon rename Abraham):

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;

I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;

and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was ­seventy-­five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there. (Genesis 12:1-5 NIV) 

I see four key principles about the blessing in this brief passage:

1.  All blessings originate from God.
2. We are never too old to receive the blessing.
3.  The blessing requires that we take a journey of discovery that will be different from our parents’ journeys. We can receive the blessing through our parents, but it will be different from what our parents received.
4. We are blessed so that we can be a blessing to others. Note that God mentions this twice: verse 2 says, “you will be a blessing”; verse 3 goes on to say, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” So we see that Abraham would himself be a blessing to others, and through him, the ultimate blessing of Jesus would come to “all peoples on earth.”

Every person has already received the blessing from God in the form of his or her unique design, which perfectly corresponds with God’s calling for that person’s life. Thank goodness this affirmation originates from God, not from our parents!

Yet this gift lies dormant in each of us until it is recognized and ­affirmed—­in other words, until someone speaks the language of blessing into our lives. God’s original plan was that His blessing would first be acknowledged by our parents. However, in this fallen world there are no perfectly functional families. If our parents are unable to speak the language of blessing, God does not give up. He finds other ­people—­possibly someone in our extended family, a teacher, a friend, sometimes even a complete ­stranger—­to be a conduit of His blessing to us.

My fifth grade teacher tried to do that for me. She was very tall and thin, her skin so pale it was almost an alabaster white. I suspect she was ill a good part of the time as she walked slowly and labored to breathe, but what I noticed most was her kind expression and gentle smile whenever she looked at me.

One day after class she told me about a writing contest to celebrate Presidents’ Day. She encouraged me to enter because she believed I could win. I was ­incredulous—­me, win a writing contest? I didn’t think so. Then she asked if I would do it for her. I could not turn her down. I would write the article for her so she would receive recognition as a great teacher.

Imagine my shock when my story won first place. My mom was excited about the award, but neither she nor my father attended the award ceremony. My picture was in the paper, but I did not care. I was sure my win was a fluke. Since it didn’t impress my father, it meant nothing to me either. I missed the affirmation God wanted me to have because I was demanding that it come through my father.

By age ten, I had become the primary hindrance to receiving the blessing in my life, which meant I would be unable to pass it on to anyone else. After all, you cannot give to others what you have not received yourself. Only through New Life did I learn that accessing the blessing for myself was not conditional upon receiving my father’s approval, which had seemed so impossible to earn. 1.3

Not only does God’s blessing communicate our purpose, our meaning, and our reason for existence, it influences how we relate to others and how others will relate to us. It is indelibly a part of our very identity and our destiny. It has the authority and power of God to transform our lives. It speaks to each person’s true authentic self; it empowers and releases God’s unique design, calling, and purpose in our lives.

Blessings are prophetic in that they communicate the heart, mind, and will of God for an individual. They connect us with our Creator’s dream for us. Words of blessing affirm and empower ­God-­given intrinsic attributes, such as personality, gifting, talents, character traits, and intelligences. 1.4

When we hear a blessing from God through another person, it resonates deep within our hearts, our innermost beings. We recognize that the words are true and authentic, and they speak the truth about who we were created to be. It touches a deep passion within each of us to make a difference in this world.

 

The Power of Words of Affirmation

Sociologists report that even the average introverted person, if he or she lives to about eighty years old, will influence over ten thousand people. An insurance company produced a TV commercial that illustrates the power of one act of kindness. The ad shows a person doing something kind while another person observes her. The next scene shows the observer doing a kind deed, which is then observed by someone else, who then does his own act of kindness. You get the gist; it is an illustration of a kind of ­pay­-­it-­forward concept.

Notice that it wasn’t just one person, the observer, who was influenced. The first person’s act of kindness acted as a catalyst to all the other people’s acts of kindness. In a way, then, that first person was actually “responsible” for the actions that followed. The more I ponder this, the more I conclude that the estimate that even one introvert influences ten thousand people is probably much too conservative.

If you doubt that you and I really have that much influence, consider what happened to me not long ago when I walked into our local gas station to pick up a fountain drink. As I proceeded to the counter, deep in thought about the next chapter of this book, the attendant behind the counter exclaimed, “Ah! What’s the matter?”

His pained response shocked me out of my preoccupation. I looked at him and said, “Huh?” He said, “Joe, you always come in here with a smile on your face, and you always greet us. Today you walked in without so much as a ‘Hi,’ and you looked almost angry.”

Now, I was not angry at all; when I am deep in thought, though, I must look angry. What so caught my attention was how strongly the attendant reacted to my not greeting him and smiling as usual. It was another example of how we influence and bless people.

A more poignant example comes from a good friend, whom I’ll call Mary. While we discussed how affirming people’s gifts and talents is a powerful way to bless one another, she told me how she’d witnessed this for herself.

One day at work, Mary sat down at a lunch table opposite Betty, a coworker whom everyone tried to avoid. Betty always seemed down, and she was cranky and very unpleasant to be around. Mary couldn’t help wondering, since everyone has gifts and talents, what Betty’s looked like. As Mary thought about it, she recalled many of the skills and talents Betty exhibited in her work, some of which directly benefited Mary.

As she began eating her salad, Mary said, “Betty, I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate the way you . . .” As Mary proceeded to articulate each of Betty’s positive contributions at work, her coworker sat speechless, tears filling her eyes. Finally, she told Mary that it had been a very long time since anyone had said anything kind to her.

Betty began to tell Mary how she had spent all her life caring for others. As a young girl, she cared for her sickly mother. Now she was caring for her husband, who was too ill to work. Betty continually felt overwhelmed and trapped. Though life had not been kind to Betty, when Mary spoke life and blessing to her, it had a profound influence.

One final example of the power we have to bless one another comes from the movie Hugo, which I recently enjoyed watching with my family. The story revolves around a young boy named Hugo who loves to fix ­things—­especially clocks.

Hugo’s mother has died; his father is a watchmaker who works in a museum fixing complicated devices. Hugo loves spending time with his father learning the trade. At the beginning of the movie, Hugo’s father is trying to repair an enormously complicated mechanical boy, an automaton that has been donated to the museum.

Tragically, Hugo’s father dies in a fire at the museum. Without any compassion, Hugo’s drunken uncle arrives at Hugo’s home to tell the boy that his father is dead. He then drags Hugo to the train station, where the uncle lives and works maintaining the clocks. Before leaving his home, the only thing Hugo grabs is the automaton, which he intends to repair someday. Meanwhile, Hugo learns his uncle’s trade of keeping the station’s clocks running.

Even after his uncle disappears, Hugo continues to live at the station and maintain the clocks. There he befriends a young girl who was adopted by her godparents. Together they try to solve the mystery of the automaton, which Hugo thinks carries a secret message for him from his father. Hugo believes this message will speak to his very purpose in life.

This brings me to what I consider the key point of the movie: a conversation between the two children about their life’s purpose. Hugo says, “If you lose your purpose, it’s like you’re broken.” He adds, “I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason too.”1

“If you lose your purpose, it’s like you’re broken.” Wow, what an insight! So many people feel broken because they do not know their true and authentic purpose in life. Film reviewer Drew McWeeny observed about Hugo, “Early on, it’s obvious that the film is less about the mechanical man and more about the way broken people sometimes need other people to fix them, how we can all play some part in the lives of others, sometimes without meaning to.”2 1.5

I am quite passionate about several concepts underscored by this movie:

1.  We are created with purpose.
2. When we have lost our purpose, it is as if we are broken, and we do not function the way our Creator designed us to function.
3.  Sometimes we need other people to help fix ­us—to help us find our true purpose—­an illustration of our interdependency.
4. We often play a part in the lives of others, sometimes without even being aware of it. The more we can live with a clear sense of purpose, the more impact and influence we will have on others.

You are not an accident. Before He even created the world, God began to dream of you. The apostle Paul writes, “Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians ­1­:4-­5).

He envisioned a unique design for you and decided to invite you and your purpose into His eternal purposes. That purpose will not end with your physical death. After you’ve finished your life on planet Earth, you will stand before our Lord and Maker. If you’ve lived out your purpose, you can expect to hear these words: “Well done, my good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

 

Application Activity

I serve as a life coach to a number of individuals and couples. Life coaching is very different from sports coaching, voice coaching, and even executive or business coaching. In those areas, coaches are viewed as the experts in their fields and tell others what they are to do. In life coaching, I do little instructing; instead, I ask lots of questions. That’s because I understand that each individual I coach is the world’s leading “expert” on his or her unique design and calling. Through the right questions, I help draw out what is deep within each person into his or her conscious awareness. I then affirm and celebrate each person’s unique design.

I have coached over one thousand highly gifted and talented individuals, and I have noticed that when we start working together, the vast majority have little or no sense of their life’s mission. When I ask them about their “unique” purpose, many roll their eyes and ask, “Really, a unique purpose? You’re serious? I’m supposed to have one?” You may feel the same way at this point. I understand. Many people find it extremely difficult to discover their distinctive purpose on their own. As you will learn in part 2, this can be challenging for many reasons. The good news, explained in part 3, is that there are many tools to help you discover it.

As you begin this book, let me assure you that the benefits of knowing your unique design and purpose are numerous. If the idea of finding your life purpose seems out of reach right now, I encourage you to work through the Application Activities at the end of each chapter. Writing down or discussing your answers to the questions will put you on the path to discovering the gifts and purpose God has placed within you. Knowing what you were put on earth to do will then positively affect your relationships, your work, your spirituality, your health, and every other area of your life.

1.   Do you have a sense of your unique ­purpose—­what you were born to do?

2.   If you do have a sense of your distinctive purpose, how would you describe it? If you don’t, what is your response to the assertion that you, like every other person, were designed with a ­God-­given purpose in mind?

*This Article First Published 2/20/2013