Reformed Quarterly Volume 8, Issue 3
John Koelling was a rebellious young man. Cocky, arrogant, belligerent, and unsaved. This distressing attitude was his constant companion — even on the day he almost died.
It happened in 1978. An Air Force Academy graduate and ace pilot, Koelling and another pilot were participating in a simulated combat exercise over Las Vegas, Nevada, when suddenly, the plane spun wildly out of control and began to fall apart. Both of the men ejected while the plane flew upside-down at an altitude of under 500 feet. John’s partner was killed instantly when his seat malfunctioned and struck the tail of the airplane, and John narrowly escaped death when he hit the ground only one second after his parachute opened.
“I should have been killed,” remembers the senior Master of Divinity student with amazement, “but I had only superficial injuries. I later discovered we were at an altitude and airspeed where my ejection seat was not even supposed to work.”
While such a close brush with death might have caused another man to assess his bankrupt spiritual condition and cry out to God, the accident only prompted Koelling to become yet more proud, more sure of his invincibility, more certain it “just wasn’t my turn in the barrel.”
“I was the typical ‘fly-boy’– self-centered and egotistical, accustomed to people admiring me for my ability as a pilot. I was surrounded by men who had the same attitude; in fact, such thinking was encouraged and seemed almost necessary for our emotional survival in the midst of such hazardous work.”
THE SEEDS OF REBELLION
As a child growing up in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, John was fascinated with flying and wanted to be in the Air Force. The obsession never waned, and during high school he applied for an appointment to the Air Force Academy. It wasn’t an idle wish, since he was a multi-talented athlete –lettering in football, hockey, and track — and maintained nearly a 4.0 average.
In 1971 he received his appointment and was recruited to play ice hockey for the Academy. It was like a dream come true. The first year went well; his strict upbringing had amply prepared him for the arduous military discipline. In fact, the grueling academic requirements, along with the demands of hockey practice and games, presented John an opportunity to flourish. Out of 1200 students, he was in the top 100 at year’s end, making the Superintendent’s List, an elite group who were the top students both militarily and academically.
Unfortunately, these superior achievements were not to continue. His sophomore year, he became bored and rebellious in his studies, chafing to move on from what he considered to be “baby stuff.” In addition, he was transferred to another squadron where the men had interests other than intercollegiate sports, and John was an outsider. Instead of working to become one of the group, John distanced himself from them and immersed himself in hockey.
As a result of his immature reactions, his grades and military performance plummeted. Circumstances continued to deteriorate, and during his junior year he was placed on aptitude probation, indicating he seriously lacked potential for military service. As John sums it up, “The military thought I had an attitude problem.”
And he did. Spiritually, he was at rock bottom. He attended church only sporadically with friends while at the Academy, but his interest in God was superficial. ” I grew up believing that I just had to believe, say I’m sorry for my sins, and I would go to heaven. I flirted between not being too bad and being pretty disgusting. My religious life was adaptable to whatever lifestyle I wanted to live,” John recalls ruefully.
That lifestyle included a lot of hockey and parties; in fact, they were his life. While John was not at all on good terms with Academy officials, he was very popular among his hockey teammates. During his senior year he was an assistant captain of the team. “The position fulfilled a need in my life,” John remembers. “It made me feel important and gave me some direction.”
John graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1975 and went to Columbus, Mississippi, for pilot training. He became an outstanding pilot quickly; out of nearly forty pilots he graduated first in his class. He was awarded the Air Training Command Commander’s Trophy as the most distinguished graduate of his class and was on his way to becoming an ace fighter pilot.
The success, however, fostered deeper rebellion and his arrogance grew worse. Flying expertise had now supplanted hockey as the status symbol to fill that aching void which haunted him. After serving several years in Texas, John was promoted to instructor pilot and was assigned to Okinawa, Japan, where he flew RF-4s, a reconnaissance version of a fighter plane, in support of a Joint Chiefs of Staff-directed mission. During his one and one-half years in Japan, he married and returned to the States as a captain in RF-4 flight instruction. It was then that God began to deal with John Koelling.
THE BROKENNESS BEGINS
Complete brokenness is often a necessary experience for us to give our attention to God. Because of our sinful nature, we refuse to see God or yield ourselves to him until we have reached a state of total helplessness. It was no different for John Koelling.
In 1981 John and a navigator were practicing a special method for starting aircraft engines. During the exercise, the crew chief mistakenly thought the aircraft was on fire, so John and his partner made an emergency exit. A fire truck rushed to the scene and accidentally sprayed them with a toxic chemical. Although both were unharmed, they were taken to the hospital to be checked. There the navigator asked for an EKG because he felt his heart was beating irregularly. A mix-up occurred, and an EKG was ordered for John instead of his navigator. To John’s dismay, they discovered he, too, had an irregular heartbeat. In the Air Force, that means automatic grounding.
John was devastated. At age twenty-eight, his proud Air Force career lay in ashes. Additionally, his marriage was disintegrating, and he failed to salvage it. He needed a new job, so he entered the Air Force Institute of Technology in Ohio in 1982 for a Master of Science degree in Engineering. He recalls, “My world had fallen apart, and I was trying to grab onto something else. Yet, as I grabbed, even more of my world fell apart.”
Upon graduation John moved with his new wife, Robin, to Colorado Springs, where he monitored and tested software used to track objects in space. But he was disappointed with the job because it didn’t make good use of his degree. Suddenly, for John, life was not very satisfying at all.
“Almost everything I’d always banked on was gone — hockey, flying, my degree — and I began to feel a great void.”
At the same time, Robin was also feeling unfulfilled. She had been brought up in a church-going home and felt convicted to attend church. So, both together and separately, they visited a variety of churches, and finally Robin stumbled into the one closest to their apartment, Village Seven Presbyterian Church.
“She came back telling me I had to go see how different this church was,” remembers John. “I went the next Sunday and felt the same way. Not long after that, I went to Boston on a business trip and was jogging one day with an associate when he shared his testimony with me. From that moment on, I knew what a Christian was and what a Christian was not, and I knew that I was not one. As a result of that conversation, shortly thereafter I gave my life to Christ.”
Not long after John’s conversion, Robin noticed a change in her husband’s disposition and asked why he was different. John told her about his conversion, then shared with her how she might accept Christ. She responded by giving her life to Christ also.
A SERVANT EMERGES
From the time of his conversion, John grew spiritually by leaps and bounds. He was discipled at Village Seven and went through the Evangelism Explosion program. He also assisted with the youth, taught junior high Sunday School, and attended a Bible study for married couples. John reflects, “By God’s grace, I grew spiritually at a rapid pace. I could not read enough because I was so hungry for the Bible and for truth.”
John’s thoughts turned to seminary almost immediately. But he and Robin decided to spend much time discerning God’s will for their future. It was not until two years after his conversion that God led John to RTS. Since that time, others have confirmed his gifts for the ministry. Mrs. Bewey Bowden, adjunct professor of Pulpit Speech, comments, “John shows great depth in his preaching. He not only has a good intellect, but he has the heart of a pastor – a genuine warmth that reveals his love for the people to whom he’s preaching.”
Last summer John gained invaluable experience when he served as interim pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Brandon, Mississippi. Since last fall he has been director of young adults at Northpark Presbyterian Church in Jackson.
Close friends admire John’s deep commitment to the Lord. Senior Richard Thomas comments, “What impresses me most about John is his intensity of godliness and his desire to follow the Lord. He does everything to the best of his ability and is deeply compassionate to others, especially to those in need.”
As a cocky rebel, John was of little use to God — no matter how talented he was. But witness what a fine and willing servant God fashioned as he humbled John, then picked up the broken fragments of his life and molded a true man of God. As James says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).