“Listening to the Experts”

The town of Fudai sits on the north western coast of the main Japanese island of Honshu. Its economy is largely based on fishing – it depends, very thoroughly, on the sea. Fudai has less than 3,000 people in it, making it small enough that half a century ago the regional government tried to convince it to merge with another even smaller village nearby. That was, until the mayor of the other town made a show of insulting the negotiators from Fudai at the party to celebrate the merger, ensuring that he’d get to stay the mayor of his unmerged town.

What is noteworthy about Fudai is not its size, but its infrastructure. It has a very large floodgate system – dramatically larger than any of its neighbors do. It has that floodgate because of Kotaku Wamura, who served as mayor of Fudai for forty years and spent most of that time fighting to have the structure built and eventually overseeing its construction. The project took twelve years to complete, and Wamura retired just a few years after it was finished. It wasn’t hard building support for a system to prevent flooding – tsunamis, major title waves, are a well-known danger in Japan. But the scale of the project seemed out of all proportion. The cost was over three and a half billion yen – I know that everything sounds more impressive when you put it in yen, but that’s still well over 30 million in modern dollars. Yet, Kotaku Wamura persisted.

And then, in 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck Fudai’s region, one of the worst natural disasters in modern Japanese history. There was terrible destruction, and entire villages on coast were lost. But Fudai was so thoroughly prepared for a crisis almost no one had imagined that none of its houses were destroyed, and the town barely even got wet. The former mayor hadn’t lived to see his foresight pay off like that, but a delegation from the village went to visit the place where he is buried, in order to offer their thanks.

None of us can know everything. And so we depend on one another to know enough about enough different things for us to get the benefit of insight and experience we don’t have within ourselves. For many folks, its our job to develop some specialized expertise so that other people can benefit from it. That’s what we have doctors and scientists and engineers and investigative reporters and a variety of other sorts of careers: so that people who’ve spent a long time studying and thinking about a subject can give the rest of us advice who couldn’t necessarily arrive at on our own.

But when the advice is surprising, or scary, or just inconvenient, we often choose to ignore or reject it. A doctor’s good advice may go unheeded, or a scientist’s warnings downplayed or dismissed entirely. Two recent reports on the stark, humbling reality of climate change – one from the UN in October and another from 13 US federal agencies in November – continue an alarm that has been sounding for almost the entirety of my life. As a reminder, our planet is warming, the warming is traceable directly to our reliance on fossil fuels and other human choices, and the consequences of that warming are enormous, and dangerous. Yet, rather than face the need to make new and different choices, the response from some folks – many of them our nation’s leaders – has been to refuse to listen and to deny at every turn the advice of experts, no matter how much evidence they have to offer.

In the traditional story of the birth of the teacher Jesus, which our young people will retell to us in a moment, there is a different example of consultation with experts. The three wise men, three magi, or three kings are not given much detail in the Gospel According to Matthew – the one book of the bible in which they appear. Their specific homelands and even their exact number isn’t actually given. But it is said that they were wise men and that they came from the east – east of Bethlehem and the setting of the story lay the places known today as Iraq and Iran. Two-thousand years ago, the cultures that inhabited those places were renowned for their knowledge of the stars. They were somewhere in the transition from the less-than-reliable practice of astrology to the scientific discipline of astronomy. When these wise men came to King Herod, declaring that the sighting of a certain star had signaled to them the birth of a king, this was the reputation they were speaking from. And in the story, Herod hates this news, he wants it to be untrue, but at the same time he is worried that the wise men may be right. He asks them to send word when they find the newborn, pretending to want to pay homage as they do, when all he actually wants is to dispose of the child so that he can protect his title and power. Given this, we could say that King Herod – one of the most thoroughly hard-hearted and unsympathetic figures in the whole of the bible – is actually more open to taking advice and counsel from others – even if when its upsetting or inconvenient – than are some of the people who currently lead our nation.

But the expertise of the wise men questionable, at best, by modern standards – for the most part, we no longer look to the activity of the stars in the sky in order to predict the future. Yet what does recur again and again in the stories of the nativity is the sense that they people involved in it are having a profound spiritual experience. There are angelic visitations for both Mary, the mother and Joseph, the father. There are shepherds who feel compelled to leave their sheep in the night in order to witness something that seems to them impossibly profound. And the magi themselves – whatever they may have seen or thought they saw in the sky, come to visit the newborn and his family and are deeply moved. Even without pretending to certainty on the exact ‘why’ of all of those feelings and experiences, we can still take them seriously as they appear in the story. We can honor the reality of the feelings and the visions for the characters who experience them and reflect on how deeply our own lives would be changed by such events. Perhaps, for some of us, our own lives already have been reshaped by transformative moments of spiritual awakening such as this – it isn’t always an angel, or a babe in a manger, that wrests us off of the path we were on, and sets us onto a different one instead.

I point this out to underline that there are many different types of expertise in the world, and that one of the most important and sometimes the most over-looked is the expertise that simply comes from our own experience of living our own lives. Let me be clear: I don’t mean that personal experience is a substitute for rigorous scientific inquiry, when it comes to the questions that include all of us – how the world works, and what we ought to do, together, in light of that. But often, our questions are much smaller and more personal than that. Often the most important question is, “What does this person I care about need from me?” And the best answer to that question should come from that same person, from their experience. They know best what they need, just as I know best what I need, and you know best what you need. Our experience of our own lives are the most important credentials that could be offered for answering such a question. And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, how often have we heard someone we care about state what they need from us and tried to shrink or reshape it into something more convenient to us? Something that comes easier, or better matches our own desires? We are each experts on ourselves, and so if we truly care for one another, we must treat that expertise with the respect it is due.

Kotaku Wamura was the elected leader of his village, and that gave him a certain responsibility to look after its well-being. But the origin of his determination to build that floodgate was not only the scientific reports he read that made it clear a devastating tsunami was a future possibility. He had also witnessed one, long before he was elected mayor, when Fudai was struck by a major tidal wave in 1933. He remembered how terrible the loss was – he never wanted to see it happen again. Our experience of life is a very particular form of knowledge. We can easily take too much from it, and try to force our own sense of what is most important and necessary on other people. But we can also take from it a deep sense of purpose – the sense of what our lives up to this moment are calling out for us to do. In the story we are about to hear, nearly every character, it seems, is being called out of the life they had been living and into something new. Therefore, in this season and in the new year to come, may you hear, and heed, life’s particular calling for you.