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Surprised by Grace

By Emily Milner

Grace surprises Angela Schulz in a Native American ceremony: she attends it looking for happiness, for beauty and power, and ends with a life-changing experience that unexpectedly turns her towards the Church. It’s a powerfully written essay, and there are so many layers to it that I almost hate to pick this one aspect of it to respond to.

But it’s what grabbed me. And it also made me think of Seminary. Because I hated Seminary. Especially my first two years of Seminary. I’m from Utah, so I did released time Seminary, which meant that I had to miss taking some other elective so that I could take Seminary. So Seminary and I began badly, because I really wanted to be using that credit hour for something else.

Then too, I had some doozies for teachers. I suspect, looking back, that they were not nearly so bad as I remember them; I was a snarky fourteen-year-old, eager to prove that they were wrong about something. But as I recall, they weren’t that great:

Teacher #1, a timid student teacher, couldn’t handle the stress of mouthy junior high kids, and left halfway through the semester with a nervous breakdown.

Teacher #2, after I made some impudent comment, told me that if all the women in the world talked as much as I did, all the men would be celibate. You’re thinking, no he didn’t! Really? And the answer is yes, really. Says a lot about both how much I talked back then and how well he responded to my jibes. Also I am happy to report that I am Married with Three Kids and have Proven Him Wrong. Hah!

Teacher #3 enjoyed telling lurid sensational stories about people who sinned in a big way, along the lines of “This bishop and this primary president were spending too much time together consulting with each other and then they broke their temple covenants and committed adultery and it was very sad. Don’t ever do that, kids. Let me tell you about something else you should never do . . .”

And Teacher #4 was apparently too busy to do much lesson prep, because he showed us lots of movies. Nearly every day. Movies about things totally unrelated to seminary, like his hobby, which was falconry, training birds of prey. Yes.

So, with these four teachers, my original assumptions about seminary were proven correct: it was a waste of my perfectly good credit. I could have taken many things, and instead I wasted my time in seminary.


I’d had a rough time during my semester with Teacher #3”“not in his class, but just in general. I was trying to figure out high school, flaunting my credentials as a smart person, since it was all I believed I was good at, and various teachers were concerned about my inflated ego. Did they realize the bundle of insecurities and fears hidden beneath my bluster? I don’t know. I do know that they had communicated their concern to my parents, who talked with me about it. I was devastated”“teachers had always loved me, and I had never been in trouble with them in my life. I felt moody and angry and scared.

And in the midst of my depression, I went to Seminary, irritated as always that I had to be there. That day my teacher showed us a movie about the Savior. It showed the last days of his life, him struggling to carry the cross through the streets. That’s the scene I remember from it, him carrying the cross. There was some Seminary-type song playing along with it, but it didn’t register; all I could see was my Savior, carrying the cross, and the Spirit overwhelmed me. It was the beginning of my belief, the beginning of my understanding that he had born my grief, and carried my sorrows. And it came to me, of all places, in Seminary.

Most people wouldn’t think of Seminary as a place where God’s grace surprised you; they would expect to find it there. But I didn’t, and to feel the Spirit, to feel God’s love for me so powerfully in a setting I despised, stunned and humbled me.

Grace surprised Angela Schulz in a Native American ceremony; it surprised me in Seminary. When has grace surprised you?

About Emily Milner

(Poetry Board) graduated from BYU in Comparative Literature, but it was long enough ago that most of what she learned has leaked out. She would like to mention other hobbies or interests, but to be honest she spends most of her free time reading (although she does enjoy attempting yoga). She used to blog at hearingvoices.wordpress.com. For now, though, Segullah is her only blogging home, and it's a good one.

10 thoughts on “Surprised by Grace”

  1. I promised myself that I wouldn't comment on Segullah any time soon seeing as I've commented way too much, although one of those Martha's is NOT me. I never thought I'd be confused with another Martha, we are few and far between.
    Anyway, I felt compelled to comment on your post. I am often surprised by the grace that flows through other people. As I try to figure out who I am as a daughter of God, as a mother, as a wife, and so on, I am humbled by the mothers and wives around me. Through their faith and trials I feel the Lord's love flowing through them to me. These women's testimonies have propelled me forward and molded my understanding. I don't know how it's orchestrated, but I am grateful for our paths meeting. I'm overwhelmed and surprised that the Lord knows my needs and meets them so sweetly through the goodness of others.

  2. i'm always surprised by the grace i find in a seemingly benign phone call or comment by the person i would least expect the strength from. and i'm in awe that heavenly father has put so many amazing people in my path– just to make me happy.

  3. This reminds me of Elder Bednar's talk about tender mercies a few conference's ago. I find those moments so often throughout my day…unless of course I'm too grumpy to let them in. They're still there, but I reflect them off the surface instead of letting them in. My quest at present is to be more available to those moments, because I need every moment of grace and tenderness I can get at the moment.

  4. I would suspect that, of the thousands of converts that come into the Church every year, many of them feel that they found grace in the most unlikely of places: those straight-laced, well-groomed, Mormon missionaries! How many times have missionaries heard something along the lines of, "Before I actually talked to you, I always saw you walking along the street and thought you were rather strange…."

    I'm also reminded of several news stories from the local (Utah) news from recent months, where victims of horrible crimes have found grace through offers of forgiveness by their victims. The first, link here , is a bishop in my grandparents' stake in Salt Lake. The second example is here.

  5. I was reading Darlene's blog the other day about her Pioneer Trek and I cried like…well…a pioneer at how beautiful life is.

    And I know all about Seminary Teacher #3.

  6. I love when I am surprised by the kindness of people around me, in places where I wouldn't expect it. It reminds me how much the Savior loves me. I live in NYC and on the steps of my apartment building a group of guys with questionable jobs (possibly gang members, maybe just peddlers of black market stuff . . .)hang out and keep the neighborhood "safe". Time and again they have gone out of their way to help with my groceries, open the door, carry my stroller up the stairs. They smile and ask about my kids; they assure me I am part of the neighborhood and when I put judgment aside, we are able to see each other as who we are, children of the same Father in Heaven. Loving others, accepting help from them leads me closer to my Savior, and I can more readily accept what he has to offer.

  7. What wonderful comments–and it's so true. I am often surprised by grace in others. When I know that someone has gone out of their way to think of me, I feel God's love, and it always surprises me… a former visiting teaching companion wrote me a kind note a couple of weeks ago, and it just made my (going badly) day.

    I think it's important to notice the ways we daily encounter God's tender mercy; the big times are those life-changing, foundational moments. But the daily goodness around us (love Heather's story about the guys who keep you safe) is important to be aware of, too.

    Is being surprised by grace like this the same idea as C.S. Lewis's "surprised by joy"? I thought about that when I was writing this post title, and I'm not sure. The realization I had of the Atonement was a searing experience for me, not necessarily joyful, although it led to joy.

  8. I'm always surprised by grace. The strongest examples of it were when I was told "no" in answer to prayer – a prayer asking if I was going to have another child. I have two children, and wanted more, though hubby definately didn't.

    The absolute love I felt with the no suprised me immensely, and the continued spiritual support as I came to terms with the answer always startled me, and comforted me beyond words. It was a 'long lasting' grace as well – even now, years later, it surprises and uplifts me.

    Thanks for the great post and essay!

  9. Thanks for this disussion, Emily.

    I was surprised by grace in set of experiences in ways that I didn't fully explore in this essay. One of those is my relationship with my grandmother. She was the only relative on either side of my family who was religious when I was growing up. As a Primary age child I wanted my family to be religious, and I wanted a warm, nurturing relationship with her. But if Grandma was like a rose, she also had her share of thorns. At times she was critical, emotionally distant, and snobbish. I was always intimidated by her. But after rediscovering the gospel as an adult I came to appreciate how her steadfastness in the gospel had impacted me. Even when I was estranged from the Church she made sure that there were Church magazines and music in our home, she always sent my birthday and Christmas and Valentine cards, and as I mentioned in the essay, she always prayed for me and took my name to the temple. The wonderful miracle of grace is that despite my weakness in receiving those gifts and her imperfections in the way they were sometimes given, through the Atonement they were enough. That's what I pray for with my extended family now. Most of them still haven't come to un derstand the gospel. I know that my ability to love them as they need to be loved is weak, and most of them don't have the capacity to recieve the gifts that I would give them anyway. But through the Atonement, I hope that it will be enough.

  10. Angie, I love this essay. I think it's one of the best things Segullah has ever published.

    It's interesting how the experiences with your grandmother, which were unexplored in your essay, compare with my seminary tales… there were imperfections in my Seminary experience, and there were imperfections in your grandmother, but as you put it, through the Atonement it was enough. Maybe that's why grace is always a surprise: I tend to dwell on the weaknesses and imperfections, and the grace of others helps me see how narrow that vision is.


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