Wheaton College builidng in Wheaton. (photo/wikimedia commons)

We’ve all heard that joke about the man who was forced by floodwaters to climb onto the roof of his house. Professing his faith in the Lord and convinced that he’d be saved, the man turns away rescue attempts from good Samaritans in a rowboat, a speedboat and a helicopter. Eventually, the floodwaters got so high that the poor fellow drowned. Once he arrived in heaven, the man went to God and asked why he had done nothing to save him. With a puzzled look, God replied: “I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?”

And, as I learned recently, sometimes God sends a plane ticket — and a very decent job offer to serve as a guest lecturer for a week at a Christian college in the Midwest. 

That’s how it was for me. You see, I was recently blessed to spend a life-changing week at Wheaton College in Illinois. Once there, I spoke with students, gave career advice to graduating seniors, led a discussion on constitutional checks and balances, met with faculty and administrators, and helped the writers and editors of the Wheaton Record find just the right words. I stayed on campus and ate with students in the dining hall.

I gave a little, but I got a lot more in return. Along the way, I learned about myself, my life, my craft and my faith. 

Now that I’m home in California, I look back on my time at Wheaton as an important part of my spiritual journey to be a better Catholic and get closer to God. 

I’ve been at this for a while. As I explained one night to a small group of students over dinner, I’ve spent much of the last few decades trying to find my way and create a relationship with the Almighty. 

It hasn’t been easy. I started out at a disadvantage. This is the one area where my parents, who did their jobs so well, failed. They always encouraged me and my siblings to believe in God, but they didn’t make sure that we went to church regularly or attended Sunday school. Later, it also didn’t help that I attended a secular college or that I came to perceive — as part of the liberal orthodoxy to which I subscribed in my teens and 20s — churchgoers as intolerant and narrow-minded. It all seemed to keep me further away from the Lord. 

But, as time passes, you learn that nothing can stand between you and God. The Almighty sends out messages — rowboats, speedboats, helicopters — and, eventually, he breaks through. 

When I think back to my week at Wheaton, there are so many memorable moments. They include:

The daily chapel service, where I saw the beautiful sight of uninhibited young people directly connecting with the Lord; 

The student who wanted to write a novel, and me telling her that I knew a novelist in California that she should meet, only to find out that she and the writer live 20 minutes apart; and

The student pursuing a media career who blurted out, “I think God brought you to me” when I was thinking the same thing.

I gave a lot of myself, but I got even more back in return. As a Catholic, spending a week at a Christian college helped strengthen my own faith. That sounds odd, but it’s true. I felt completely at home, while still aware of the differences between how the students approached God and how I did. These are private matters, and everyone has to travel his or her own road at their own speed.  

It’s a sad statement that, too often, human beings approach religion as an exercise in division. We should, of course, feel proud of our denomination, but we should never look down on another’s. Individuals worship in different ways, and they adhere to different traditions. Yet we’re all created by the same God, and each of us can be described as a work in progress.

That is certainly true in my case. If we can all be described with grades, I’m definitely an “incomplete.” I’m getting the messages, but my own journey toward God continues. There are good days and bad ones. Sometimes, it feels like I’m taking a step forward. Other times, it’s more like a step back. But, despite my imperfections, the good Lord has always stuck by me. And so I intend to repay the favor. 

Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, a columnist for the Daily Beast, and author of “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano” (Bantam).