Matthew 17: 14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15 and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” 17 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
A few years ago, I was cleaning out the disaster zone more commonly know as the boys’ play room and I stumbled across one of those grade school P.E. jump-ropes (actually I nearly broke my neck when my feet became tangled in the pesky thing); you know the ones with the skinny rope encased in colored plastic rings. I picked it up and looked at it for a brief second then ambled outside to give it a whirl. I briskly went through the routine of various jumps and steps, then laughed as I thought of the days when jumping rope was hardly so effortless. For most of us a jump-rope does not represent a major obstacle. Learning to jump-rope is hardly one of life’s significant rites-of-passage. For me, however, as a young man that jump-rope symbolized everything that I was and could be.
I was a gangly ninth-grader trying to survive off-season football drills and unfortunately that meant a daily confrontation with the incarnate of evil known as a jump-rope. Everyday the last task was for us to complete 100 successive jumps with the jump-rope. Those jumps were the bane of my existence. I would stumble, trip, and tangle the infernal contraption around every limb. Everyone would be long gone before I was finished and my older brother would be fuming as he waited for me to bumble my way through the torture. Believe it or not, that jump-rope was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I was born with some–how shall I say it–challenges to overcome. You can see one lasting mark of my arrival into this world. My left ear is folded part-of-the-way over and juts out at a noticeable angle. You can only imagine the comic value my grade-school classmates found in such a large protruding ear. I guess at this point in my life I could have surgery to repair the ear but I think it serves a purpose. It reminds me how far I have come and what I have overcome. Excuse me I got distracted for a moment. The ear is only a symptom of a rather traumatic early childhood. I was born with that left ear plastered against my head an outward mark of the trauma to my head. The internal damage was more significant and as the doctors warned possibly permanent. My brain suffered damage comparable to having a baseball bat swung at full force. The doctors told my parents that I might not ever walk or even talk. Though they were wrong on both counts, I faced some difficult health problems. Whooping cough before the age of two almost brought a sudden end to my life as I was carried into the emergency room at one point, my body blue from having quit breathing. I suffered convulsions and radical body temperature fluctuations which caused me to take phenobarbital for most of my childhood. Looking at me then, you would never believe I would grow into the man I am now.
Despite the health issues, I loved sports and although my parents never coddled me, they were concerned that I would have some difficulties physically (I was a big kid but a little clumsy) and emotionally (how would I react to failures). So they asked my doctors for advice. The doctors replied that I would probably never excel but I wouldn’t be hurt in any way and participating in sports could actually help me maximize my some-what limited physical abilities. I was given the green light and began playing t-ball on my older brother’s team the summer before starting second grade. I never looked back.
I spent hours throwing and catching. If no one would play with me, it didn’t matter. I would toss a football or baseball in the air and run to catch it. I would play until it was dark and I couldn’t see the ball or my parents would drag me in for dinner. In those solitary hours I developed a sense of purpose. I was going to play football. I didn’t care how hard I had to work to do it. I was going to be a football player; which leads me back to the jump-rope.
I started playing football in the third grade. I was pretty good. I was big and strong and had an unquenchable passion for the game. As I got older and in junior high I was a starter and the coaches all told me I had potential. The one glaring weakness I had was a lack of speed and mobility. Thus the jump-rope. Everyday the challenge. Everyday the struggle. Everyday confronted with failure. My brother would wait, albeit with no patience. You see he had to wait because my parents usually had to work and could not give us a ride home. We lived eight-and-a-half miles from the school and if we didn’t ride the bus home, we had to walk. The longer it took me to finish those jump-ropes the later and darker it was when we walked home. Needless to say many late afternoons turned into complete darkness before we arrived home. The coaches would leave us in the gym and told us to turn off the lights and lock the doors as they left. I never took advantage of their absence, even though my brother begged me to. I stayed and finished. Then we would walk/run home. Usually running most of the eight plus miles. Once home, homework and chores were done. I would collapse into bed knowing that the morning would bring the same challenge. Why did I keep going back? Why not admit failure? Quite simply, the thought of quitting was not an option. I had made a choice in the deepest part of me that I would do it. I would conquer the jump-rope. I would play football. I willed myself to succeed.
I did succeed. I never became a superstar football player, but I did start every year I played and received some scholarship offers from Division 2 and NAIA programs. I played on two state runner-up teams and can look back with pride on what I accomplished. What about the jump-ropes? By the time I was a junior I had implemented a rigorous work-out routine. I began each session with 200 push-ups and 500 sit-ups. Then, I would do my weight and conditioning for the day. At the end of every workout, I would grab one of those plastic colored jump-ropes and perform 1500 jumps. I would jump 750, take a one-minute breath, and then do 750 more. I had beat the jump-rope.
Now, this is not only a story about my athletic prowess. The jump-rope was something much bigger. It was a mountain to climb. And in climbing I learned that I had strength inside of me to overcome. That strength has carried me through many struggles. The lessons taught by the jump-rope helped me overcome a recurrence of seizures when I was in may late teens. That strength carried me through poverty that included bouts of living in cars and rundown trailers. That strength helped me finish a doctorate when I faced physical and emotional exhaustion. When my initial draft of my dissertation came back with scalding remarks. I didn’t quit. I rededicated myself to work harder, to relearn things I had deficiencies in, to climb another mountain. In the end, I did earn the doctorate to rave reviews of the same committee members who had expressed doubt in my academic future. But without the jump-rope, I truly believe the doctorate would have been impossible. I thank God for mountains which in climbing them make us stronger. I thank God for jump-ropes.