Perspective and Perception

I mentioned last week that due to illness, I spent a portion of my time between Christmas and the New Year revisiting the films of my youth. One of the films I ended up watching with the whole family was “The Karate Kid.” This specific movie selection was inspired by time with the Netflix series “Cobra Kai,” which is a show that meets up with the principal characters from the three “The Karate Kid” films. Jennifer and I figured if our children were going to truly understand the turbulent dynamics between Danny LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence, they’d better go back to the beginning. And so we did.

At one particular point in the film, I turned to Jennifer and asked somewhat rhetorically, “We’re not watching the same movie we watched as kids, are we?” I asked this during the scene in which Danny arrives at Mr. Miyagi’s house covered in pasta sauce, having just collided with a waiter in the kitchen at his girlfriend Ali’s country club. When he walks in, Mr. Miyagi is drunk and singing, making saké toasts to an old black and white image of a woman. Within a few minutes, we learn that the woman is his wife, and that after Miyagi had gone off to fight in World War II on behalf of the United States, she was moved to a Japanese internment camp where she and her unborn son died during delivery. We hear Mr. Miyagi tearfully mumble a sliver of these details, but we don’t finally understand the gravity of the scene until Danny reads a letter he discovers in a shoebox among some prestigious war medals, which, if you look closely, are the Medal of Honor, Bronze Star, Silver Star, and Purple Heart.

As a kid, the most I remember taking from the scene was that for as simple as Mr. Miyagi appeared, he had a rich past, one in which he must have done some incredibly heroic things in order to earn the medals in the shoebox. What those deeds may have been is left to imagination. For a kid, the revelation interprets Miyagi as an “action hero” of sorts, suggesting that the Cobra Kai villains didn’t really know who they were up against. But watching this scene as an adult, namely as a husband and father, I experienced an altogether different moment. Instead of sensing the electrifying potential for overcoming impossible odds and the villains that pose them, I experienced the pain of human frailty, of a man who still mourns the loss of his wife and child, two people he was helpless to save.

My comment to Jennifer was an acknowledgment of perspective. As a kid, I perceived the scene one way, but as an adult, I perceived it another.

Something else came to mind at that moment.

Have you ever seen a photograph that you thought captured something truly breathtaking? I have. I used to be quite fond of Ansel Adams’ portraits, specifically the landscapes he photographed at Yosemite National Park in the late 50s. Even in black and white, his images seemed capable of encapsulating the beauty of God’s creation. But then I visited Yosemite National Park while in college and I realized how limiting Ansel Adams’ portraits were. Not only were they absent their vivacious colors, but they were inadequate in scope. A look to the left, a scan to the right, a glance upward from one of Yosemite’s mountains and I could see there was so much more beyond the edges of what Adams was allowing us to see through his lens. That, too, was a moment for the acknowledgement of perspective.

Someone once said that perception is everything. Unfortunately, that’s likely true. I say “unfortunately” because perception is born from perspective. This means if one’s perspective is skewed, then the perception it generates will be skewed, too. Consider the familiar examples. If a person’s perspective is normally pessimistic, they’ll likely perceive the glass as half empty. The opposite is true if they view things optimistically. Or, how about a Michigander’s January perception of a bright blue sky? From a place of seemingly forever-grays, it’s likely just one blue sky packs more of a punch for joy than a Floridian might experience in a whole year.

Perspective and perception are inseparable, and yet perspective seems to be more important. Without the right perspective, what you’re attempting to perceive won’t truly make sense.

I guess I’m thinking about this today for two reasons.

The first comes from conversations I’ve experienced in the past few weeks with Christians who are clearly divided from Christ. For the most part, it seems they’re comfortable taking sides with ungodliness while at the same time being offended by what the Author of the scriptures would actually call good. A person could only be found so foolish if his perspective, and thereby his perception, of Christ is miscalibrated. That, dear friends, is an avoidable tragedy (Matthew 7:21-23).

The second reason for this morning’s thoughts on perception and perspective arise from the changing of the Church Year’s season. It’s interesting how each of the seasons is in place to provide perspective of Christ and His work to save us. Move from one season to another, and the field of faith’s vision is honed or expanded. For example, we just left the Christmas season, one in which we beheld what God was willing to do to rescue Mankind from Sin. He loved us so much that He sent His Son—God incarnate. We leave this season for another—Epiphany. For the most part, Epiphany highlights the beginning of the incarnate Son of God’s ministry and the miracles He performed. From Epiphany’s vantage, we can see that Jesus is not like any man of God before Him. He can heal the sick. He can calm storms with a word. He can raise the dead. He can do things that only God can do. From this perspective, Epiphany perceives that when He finally makes His way to the cross to defeat Sin, Death, and hell, He will succeed. This perception will be good to have when the perspectives change again in Lent and Holy Week—when, like the disciples, the only thing we see is our Lord’s apparent submission in weakness to dreadful events leading to His death.

As we continue to make our way into the New Year, I pray that your primary perspective in all things will always be one of faith—that you’ll grow more and more to see things through the lens of the cross and empty tomb. Observing in this way, you’re sure to see things as God sees them, discovering that when it comes to mortal perspectives, “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12). Even better, I pray you’ll discover along the way that God’s thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways His ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). Counter to the inclination of our perspectives, Word and Sacrament ministry is paramount. And why? Because He would not discard the sinner. He would be found loving the unlovable. Keeping with this line of divine sight, I pray you’ll proceed into the New Year “preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, setting your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).