Monday, May 21, 2007

The Father Behind the Cross

Rudyard Kipling, the great British author who became famous for “The Jungle Book” and “Just So Stories,” adored his children. When his son, John, was twelve, Kipling penned some thoughts for him to live by. The result was a poem called “If,” which would inspire millions. It ends:

“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings--nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute, With sixty seconds worth of distance run, Your is the Earth and everything that's in it, And--what is more--you'll be a Man, my son!”

John Kipling did grow up to be a man. In 1915, with war raging in Europe, he was eager to serve. But he was only 17 and required parental consent. Rudyard Kipling faced a difficult choice. He'd visited the front; he'd written about the fighting; he didn't want his son to have to go into that carnage. And yet everything he'd taught the boy about duty and never shirking responsibility was moving John in that direction. So Kipling gave his consent. On August 15, John waved good-by from the railing of a ship, with a tip of his officer's cap. His mother thought he looked "very smart and straight and brave." It was the last time his family would ever see him. Six weeks later a telegram from the War Office reported--John Kipling, Missing in Action. He was never found. Rudyard Kipling was heartbroken. Later, he would try to deal with his grief by working with the Imperial War Graves Commission. He proposed that a Stone of Sacrifice be erected at each cemetery honoring the war dead. It would represent soldiers whose bodies were never identified, and would be inscribed with these words: "Known But Unto God." The memorial was a father's anguished hope that God did know about that lost son, that God did understand.

During the dark days of the war, Kipling began to wonder if the death of his son had any meaning. Had it made any difference? The fighting dragged on and on. One day he received a rumpled, brown-paper package in the mail, with a red box inside containing the translation of his novel “Kim.” The book had been pierced by a bullet hole--that stopped at the last 20 pages. A string had been tied through the hole, and dangling from it was the Maltese cross, France's medal for bravery in war. It belonged to a young French soldier named Maurice. He explained in a letter that Kipling's book had saved his life. Had it not been in his pocket when he went into battle, the bullet would have pierced his heart. Maurice asked Kipling to accept the book and the medal as tokens of his gratitude.

Rudyard Kipling had received many honors as a celebrated British author. He'd even won a Nobel Prize for literature. But no honor moved him as much as this one. God had made him a part of sparing someone's life. Maybe there was a meaning to it all. Maybe there was a point to all the sacrifice.

Kipling and Maurice kept up a correspondence over the years and developed a friendship that helped Kipling deal with the loss of his own son. One day Maurice wrote that his wife had given birth to a boy. Would Kipling consent to be the godfather? Kipling realized that no memorial would do more justice to his brave son's memory than this tiny infant, full of promise. He delightedly accepted. Maurice named his son Jean, French for John. And Kipling presented the infant with a gift, the book with the bullet hole in it and the Maltese cross.

Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God (I John 3:1).

[My thanks to Steven Mosley, who sent me this essay, which I have re-worded in some parts and abridged to fit this space. – Matt Soper]


Post a Comment

<< Home