The Pale Blue Dot

Just before the Voyager 1 space probe left our solar system in 1990, the late astronomer Carl Sagan requested that it take one last photo of Earth. The photograph has become known as “The Pale Blue Dot” and shows our planet as a tiny speck in a vast universe.

Sagan’s moving essay on this photograph has now been combined with some stunning footage and concludes with Sagan appealing to humanity to take better care of our planet and of one another.

For me, the high point of the video occurs around 2.55 where Sagan seems to experience and express Psalm 8 humility: “It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

However, I was especially stunned by his desperate words around the 2.20 mark: ”In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

Don’t you want to scream: “Such help did come, and we crucified Him!”

But He rose again, victorious over our greatest enemies – sin, death, and Satan.

And right now He reigns over this pale blue dot and every other dot in the universe.

And He still offers to visit us, to take up residence in our hearts by faith, and to save us from ourselves.

Now that’s extra-terrestrial!


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Wise or Foolish? One Simple Test

“The single distinguishing characteristic between a foolish and a wise person is a willingness to receive and act upon feedback.” That’s the well-tested conclusion of best-selling author and business consultant Henry Cloud in his excellent book, Necessary Endings.

That was confirmed for me recently when I asked a friend who has done a lot of interviewing of job candidates, “What’s the one thing you look for above all others when you want to hire someone?” He said that most interviewers look for experience, or qualifications, or sharp answers in the interview, but he looks for one thing, “Teachability.”

As I think back over all the people I’ve known, I have to agree, those who are teachable, and remain so, usually succeed. The unteachable usually fail. This is true in business, in ministry, in marriage, in parenting, in education, in relationships, and in many other areas of life.

So how do I know if I’m wise or foolish? In Chapter 7 of Necessary Endings, Henry Cloud supplies a checklist to help us identify whether someone is willing to receive and act upon feedback. Here’s a slightly edited version of that list:

Traits of Wise Persons

  • When you give them feedback, they listen, take it in, and adjust their behavior accordingly.
  • When you give them feedback, they embrace it positively. They say things like, “Thank you for telling me that. It helps me to know I come across that way. Or “Thanks for caring enough to bring this to my attention. I needed to hear this.”
  • They own their performance, problems, and issues and take responsibility for them without excuses or blame.
  • Your relationship is strengthened as a result of giving them feedback. They thank you for it, and see you as someone who cares enough about them to have a hard conversation. They experience you as being for their betterment.
  • They empathize and express concern about the results of their behavior on others. If you tell them that something they are doing hurts you, you get a response that shows that it matters to them. “Wow, I didn’t realize I had hurt you like that. I never would want to do that. I am sorry.”
  • They show remorse. You get a feeling that they have genuine concern about whatever the issue is and truly want to do better.
  • In response to feedback, they go into future-oriented problem-solving mode. “I see this. How can I do better in the future?”
  • They do not allow problems that have been addressed to turn into patterns. They change. They adjust and fix them.

Traits of Foolish Persons

  • When given feedback, they are defensive and immediately come back at you with a reason why it is not their fault.
  • When a mistake is pointed out, they externalize the mistake and blame someone else.
  • Unlike the wise person, with whom talking through issues strengthens your relationship, with the foolish person, attempts to talk about problems create conflict, alienation, or a breach in the relationship.
  • Sometimes, they immediately shift the blame to you, as they “shoot the messenger” and make it somehow your fault. “Well, if you had given me more resources, I could have gotten it done. But you cut my budget.” The energy shifts, and suddenly you find yourself the object of correction.
  • They often use minimization, trying to in some way convince you that “It’s not that bad” or “This really isn’t the problem that you think it is. It’s not that big a deal.”
  • They rationalize, giving reasons why their performance was certainly understandable.
  • Excuses are rampant, and they never take ownership of the issue.
  • Their emotional response has nothing to do with remorse; instead they get angry at you for being on their case, attacking with such lines as “You never think I do anything right,” or “How could you bring this up after all I have done?” Or they go into the “all bad” position, saying something like “I guess I can’t do anything right,” which is a cue for you to rescue them and point out how good they really are.
  • They have little or no awareness or concern for the pain or frustration that they are causing others or the mission.
  • Their stance is one of anger, disdain, or some other fight-or-flight response. They either move against you or move away from you as a result.
  • They see themselves as the victim, and they see the people who confront them as persecutors for pointing out the problem. They feel like the morally superior victim and often find someone to rescue them and agree with how bad you are for being “against” them.
  • Their world is divided into the good guys and the bad guys. The good ones are the ones who agree with them and see them as good, and the bad ones are the ones who don’t think that they are perfect.

Is N T Wright’s Book on the Psalms a Dangerous Gateway Drug?

What do you do with a helpful book on an important subject written by a man who is in serious error in a central and crucial area of Christian doctrine? In this case, the error is so fundamental that some would even call him a heretic, or at least that he believes or teaches heresy in this one area.

I’m talking about N. T. Wright who has written a short book on the Psalms and why we should sing them, a subject that is especially dear to my own heart. He writes so eloquently, so originally, persuasively, so TRUTHFULLY.

And yet Wright has also been responsible for popularizing one of the most dangerous and devastating redefinitions of justification by faith in history, a distortion that is continuing to wreak havoc in churches and in individual lives.

I started reading Wright’s book on the Psalms a few days ago, not really expecting much from it, and was immediately overwhelmed by the power of his prose, the force of his arguments, the startlingly fresh insights, and especially the beauty of his writing. I posted a couple of quotes on social media and within minutes: “How can you quote a heretic?” emails started arriving.

I’d love to review the book on this blog, summarize Wright’s insights, provide sample quotations, point to strengths and weaknesses, etc.

But should I?

What are the options?

1. Don’t read anything by Wright on any subject because he’s in such error in a central Christian doctrine. But that would rule out people like C.S. Lewis, John Stott, Alexander Whyte, and Thomas Chalmers, all men who wrote outstanding Christian books, and yet who made serious errors in other important areas, at least at some points in their lives.

And where do we draw the line? Is John Piper off limits because he believes in continuation of the charismatic gifts? Is Tim Keller off limits because he believes in some version of theistic evolution?

2. Read the book and learn from it, but don’t tell anyone, share anything from it, or review it favorably. For my work, I have to read quite a lot of books that I wouldn’t want to publicly discuss because of the possibility of younger Christians reading them without discernment.

It’s been argued: ”We have other reliable articles and books on Psalm singing. OK, they are not very accessible or enjoyable, but at least they are sound.”

Soundly unread.

Whatever else the Wright conundrum teaches us, it’s that we need to work and pray for far better communication skills. Why is it that the devil is so skilled at dressing up ugly error in beautiful clothes, while we seem to be experts at covering up beautiful truth in ugly layers of literary mediocrity?

3. Read, review, and even recommend the book but repeatedly point out that Wright is in error on justification (though it doesn’t appear in this book). The problem with this is that some may not pick up on the warnings. They might hear, “Oh David Murray recommended N. T. Wright on the Psalms,” go off and buy it, enjoy it as much as I did, and it becomes a gateway drug to theological heresy. Throughout his book on the Psalms, Wright repeatedly references and recommends other books he’s written, all of them attractively titled, but some of them containing dangerous error.

So I’m torn; pulled in different directions. Wanting to bless people by using this book to advance the cause of Psalm singing. Yet, terribly afraid of being a curse to people by opening the door to soul-destroying error.

I started out this post inclining towards #3. But as I close, I’m inclining to #2. Much though I’d love more Psalm-singing, you don’t need to be a Psalm-singer to get to heaven. But go wrong on justification by faith, and the consequences are terrifying.