Surprise! What You See Is Not What You Get
THROUGHOUT MY ENTIRE LIFE, I have ended up in situations that surprise me. Places that in some ways I’m not qualified for. Open doors that I didn’t ask for. Moments that clearly are much greater than my natural capacity calls for. Yet there I was, here I am, and most likely there I will be.
In the deep end.
I’m okay with this, because one thing I do not want said of me someday is: “Hey, that guy Carl Lentz? He lived up to his potential.” What a shame that would be. Potential is great, and I speak about it often. But in no way do I want my “potential” to run congruent with my life path. I want to keep doing things that obviously don’t compute with what I’m naturally able to do. My current “occupation”—pastor of a local church—is a bright and shining example of this. read more
I grew up in a family that was not perfect but pretty close. My mom and dad have been married for close to fifty years, and I have watched them love each other sacrificially and faithfully, every day of my life. I have three sisters who are all spectacular in their own ways. Although distance has made contact and regular communication more challenging as we have all grown up and stepped out in life, they have always been and will always be my three best friends. Mary, Bethany, and Corrie have always had my back and been my biggest supporters, at every stage of my random life.
There is a photo that definitely represents my childhood growing up as the only boy in a house with four women. I have a cowboy hat on, a Western shirt, a holster with two toy six-shooters, jeans . . . and high heels. I was probably about six, but evidently I blindly trusted whichever sister thought This will be funny when he gets older. I just rolled with it. Whatever. We all have photos like that.
Our family dynamic was rooted in a relationship with Jesus. Not a “religious family” but one that had a real, live, active faith. The difference is that religion is almost always passed down and accepted as fact. My parents raised us to search out truth for ourselves. Even now, when I ask people why they believe what they believe, often the response is “Well, my mother said . . .” Or, “The church I grew up in believes . . .” To which I say, “Not good enough.” At some point, people have to choose what they believe. My parents did this so well that I was allowed to even walk away from my faith at one point. They trusted truth would win out, and it did.
But for a while I chose to take a different route. I loved basketball, poured my life into it, and that basically became everything to me. I was present in high school just enough to keep my grades high enough to play more basketball. I was good, which was surprising. I’m 6'2" and not particularly athletic, but I learned quickly that if you work hard enough and you have even decent skills, you can get pretty far. In everything.
With my average skill set, I made it to the pinnacle of college basketball, the vaunted Atlantic Coast Conference, the ACC, and somehow landed a spot on the North Carolina State basketball team. I remember playing UNC, playing Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium—places that I had previously seen as fantasy lands—and thinking, I can’t believe I am here. I’m positive that anybody who saw me on this team was thinking the same thing. But I was there.
This became my pattern for life. When I went to Bible college after making the choice to leave conventional study and pursue my faith, the same thing happened in Australia. Brian Houston saw something in me as a very raw,3 outspoken, and passionate young Bible college student, and chose to help me. To lead me. To teach me.
Brian is the global senior pastor of Hillsong Church and, in my opinion, perhaps the most significant local church pastor in a very, very long time. A lot of what is commonplace in churches now, Brian did first. Things like multi-campus interaction; multi-site vision for a congregation that works together, not autonomously; and in general a preaching style that is so practical and inspiring, you don’t want to leave church when it finishes.4 Brian was one of a few brave leaders to earnestly try new things to reach people. So for him to care about me at all? A surprise.
But perhaps the icing on the “I shouldn’t be here” cake would be the fact that I am a preacher. A public speaker. When I made the choice to pursue my relationship with Jesus, I said, “God, I will do anything You ask. Except be a preacher.” Famous last words, to be sure. I just figured that I’m lucky to be alive. Never in my life had I spoken publicly, nor remotely desired to speak publicly, and I knew that preachers and speakers were open targets for people to take shots at. I was also aware I simply didn’t have that gift set. Although I had defied my “natural ability” my whole life, I thought at some point I needed to get “realistic” and aim a bit lower perhaps. God, however—as I have come to learn all too well—is not all that interested in our idea of our own potential. Regardless how hard you try to hide.
I showed up at Bible college one day in full possession of my books, my potential, and my fear and loathing of public speaking, just like I did every day. Only this was not an ordinary day; it was a day that changed the entire course of my life. We had a chapel service every Tuesday, and I loved it. Music was played, somebody would get up and preach, and we would go about our day. But on this day, a man named Phil Dooley—who is now the pastor of Hillsong South Africa and is simply one of the most encouraging, loving, and hilarious mentors I have ever had—got up and said, “Today we are going to pray for different countries in need. I’m going to ask different students to get up here and pray for their country.” He started calling names: “Thomas from Denmark, get up here. Nick from Australia, get up here.” My stomach dropped as he continued this Death Roll Call, and sure enough: “Carl from the USA, get up here and pray for your country.”
The moment I heard my name, I went from the front of the room to shifting through the crowd like I had stolen something. I then broke into a full sprint, ran out of the room, and went to hide. The first option I saw was the bathroom, and I took it. I doubled down on my hiding spot, shut the bathroom stall door, closed the toilet seat, and stood on it to ensure no trace would be evident that I was in that room. I think I stayed in there for about forty-five minutes. And for a moment—huddled in a bathroom stall, hiding out of fear, on the literal opposite side of planet Earth from where I was born, after all I had been through thus far—I considered my present situation. Here I was, a person who had already made major choices to step out in faith that had led to me defying almost every bit of meager potential that I felt I had, hiding because I was scared to do something I didn’t think I was capable of doing. I shook my head, shut my eyes, and prayed something that at times I regret. But more times I thank God that I did: “From here on out, Jesus, if You open the door, I’m going to walk through it. I don’t care if I look stupid. I don’t care if I don’t think I’m capable of it. You did not save my life for me to hide out in a bathroom stall because I’m scared. This is my pledge, starting now.”
That day, I left some of my fear, some of my hesitation, and some of my introspective self-judgment. I say “some” because there is not a single human on Earth who has completely overcome every identity and security challenge that comes with being inherently imperfect. But I left all of my potential behind that day. Because since then? More than ever, I keep surprising people. I keep surprising myself. Through prayer, trial and error, surrounding myself with people who are better than me in so many areas, I am an example of what God can do with somebody who is not amazing but available. Open to being used. Interested in being challenged. Resigned to living a life that is continually out of my comfort zone. It’s not easy, it’s just better.
I think the only person not surprised was Cathy Lentz. She is my mother, and moms are the best. They can somehow see in their kids things those same kids can’t see in themselves. I don’t think my mom has ever heard me preach without crying and saying afterward, “That was the best sermon I have ever heard. I knew you had this in you.” Everyone else who says that is generally lying. Cathy Lentz, though, is for real. My mom is always so encouraging that even in my worst moments, she will find a way to see the good in them. She’s the type of mom who bails her son out of jail and says, “Well, yes, you committed a crime, but at least it was a felony. If you’re gonna make a mistake, make a big one!”5
But now, at thirty-eight years old, I know where my mom got her faith material from. Not weird “you can do it if you believe enough” stuff. I’m talking about the one that says “Yes, there are natural limitations in this life, but God simply does not care.” Step-out-in-faith-and-roll-the-dice-and-see-what-happens type faith. The belief that potential is essentially a prison—not a malicious one but a prison nonetheless. Because if you buy into your potential, what you’re capable of? Then this life—which should be a wild ride of wins, losses, tears, and joy—never even begins. If you buy into the mentality that you are confined to your potential in this life, it becomes a prison. A prison of limitation and self-reliance and opinions from others who have no idea what truly might be inside you that isn’t easy to see right now. I found it really interesting as I learned to truly study the Bible that Jesus refused to accept the limitations people so readily wanted to put on Him. “That guy is a carpenter from a small town.” In fact, He was the biggest change agent and culture shifter to ever walk on this Earth. The prison of potential has an unlocked door that keeps a lot of people stuck in it. I have chosen to walk out of that captivity, and that same option is open to everybody.
All this time when my mom would say, “Carl, dream big. Love people. Start again. You have more in you. I believe in you,” she was actually quoting a scripture that has become my lifeline, from Ephesians chapter 3, verse 20. It goes like this: “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
This book is not intended to help people who are content with their potential. I would not be qualified to speak on that. Because if my life represents anything, it’s that God has always, and will always, use broken, unqualified people to make a difference in this world. I don’t know if you have found yourself in the proverbial bathroom stall at any point in your life. Perhaps you are there right now, or realize you just might be at some point. Please remind yourself that nobody is interested in your potential. Potential has never changed the world. I don’t think the God who created you is interested in your potential. I think the God that I believe in is not on the search for “perfect” people. He’s on the search for “available” people.
Maybe it’s time you start surprising people with what they didn’t expect from you. A new dream, a new outlook, a new spirit. I think it’s time. I want my life to be a giant surprise party when it’s all said and done. Maybe one day, people can say about you and me: “Those people surprised me. I didn’t think they had it in them.”
And we can smile and say, “Oh, we didn’t. God did this. And He can do it for you as well.”