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Expecting the unexpected

“When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” This question from the Jewish prophet Isaiah has taken up residence in my life for years. It poetically presents one of life’s basic questions: Why don’t we get what we expect? 

Even the context for Isaiah’s question is not what we might expect. It is part of a love song. Isaiah is crooning a beautiful ballad for his beloved and the beloved’s vineyard. He chants a warm melody, Luther Vandross-style.  

At the beginning of his song, Isaiah sings his heart out with lyrical poetry and hopeful expectations. He speaks of how the beloved plants a vineyard in a fertile place with choice vines and does everything to protect it and makes it ready to produce sweet wine. The beloved does everything by the book; he meets all the environmental sustainability standards.  

At that point, Isaiah’s vocal ecstasy of love crescendos to the anticipated climax in volume and energy, as we, the listeners, await the inevitable. The beloved expects the vineyard to yield grapes after all of his efforts. Yet what the prophet sings is that the beloved “expected [the vineyard] to yield grapes but it yielded wild grapes.” 

The mood has swung from sweet expectations to bitter disappointment. Isaiah is now singing the blues about love gone wrong. With this twist, is this song still about love? Yes. And it is about life in general. As one philosopher, Nicholas Wolterstorff, reminds us, “every lament is a love-song.” 

Unmet expectations are a part of life no matter how old you are. When I expected apples, how did I end up with oranges? When I ordered from Popeyes, why did I end up with a Chick-fil-A meal? You can pull an all-nighter—oozing blood, sweat, and tears—for that final exam but still not get the grade you hoped for. Or, you can invest yourself in a relationship, but sense that the same level of love and commitment is not reciprocated.  

We have seen, even recently, how people can go to school or a sporting event or a dance club and perhaps never make it back home to family and friends because of gun violence. All of these indicate that what we expect is not always what we get. Life is full of surprises, and not always good ones. 

In 2017, during Hurricane Harvey, police officer Steve Perez left his home to help those in need in the storm. His wife begged him not to go but the dedicated, determined, daring Perez told her, “We’ve got work to do.” On his way to work that Sunday, he drowned. His story is an example of the prophet’s blues line: “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?”  

Unmet expectations can lead to interrogating yourself in the courtroom of your heart asking, “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” 

There’s no university initiative or program that will help you answer this question. That existential blues question from a prophet does not have easy answers, but it teaches wisdom about how life’s pilgrimage is full of unmet expectations and surprises and disappointments. It challenges us to expect the unexpected. 

In answering this blues question, blues music provides a cue. Blues notes are sometimes called bent notes: The flat 7th or the minor 3rd bent down from the major 7th or the major 3rd. They bend but are not broken. I hope the same is true for you. Life may bend you, but you will not break. In fact, you will still be able to sing, even if it’s a blues true note.

The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.

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