The story of the Flood is so familiar to many of us that we sometimes forget how remarkable it is: in the first place because God decides to destroy the world; second, because God decides to re-create the world after all; and third, because by the end of the story the relationship between God and humanity takes on a more mature character, encapsulated in the brit, the Covenant, symbolized by the rainbow: “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth.” (Gen. 9:16)

The Covenant is a two-way agreement. For God’s part, God promises that “So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.” God promises predictability and order. For their part, human beings promise to maintain the basic standards of civilization, which the ancient Rabbis understood to include such items as: establishing courts of law; practicing monotheism; engaging only in permitted sexual relationships; and not murdering, robbing, or eating the limb of a living creature. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 56a)

The new relationship between God and humanity is marked by an important concept, that of accommodation: God recognizes the limitations of human beings, and human beings accept greater responsibility for their own behavior. God takes away the ultimate threat in the scheme of reward-and-punishment, the possibility of total annihilation. Instead, God and humanity enter into a committed relationship—one that allows room for mistakes and second chances.

In her important and influential book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, Sharon Daloz Parks uses the idea of ‘shipwreck’ to help frame our understanding of the journey of young adults:

Metaphorical shipwreck may occur with the loss of a relationship, violence to one’s property, collapse of a career venture, physical illness or injury, defeat of a cause, a fateful choice that irrevocably reorders one’s life, betrayal by a community or government, or the discovery that an intellectual construct is inadequate. Sometimes we simply encounter someone, or some new experience or idea, that calls into question things as we have perceived them, or as they were taught to us, or as we had read, heard, or assumed. This kind of experience can suddenly rip into the fabric of life, or it may slowly yet just as surely unravel the meanings that have served as the home of the soul. (p. 28)

The story of the Flood is the paradigmatic story of shipwreck. All of the metaphorical examples in the paragraph above come true during the Flood. It is a terrifying story involving unimaginable death and destruction, vast darkness and painful isolation. And yet, as Parks continues,

On the other side of these experiences, if we do survive shipwreck—if we wash up on a new shore, perceiving more adequately how life really is—there is, eventually, gladness. It is gladness that pervades one’s whole being; there is a new sense of vitality, be it quiet or exuberant. Usually, however, there is more than relief in this gladness. There is transformation. We discover a new reality beyond the loss. Rarely are we able to replace, to completely recompose, what was before… But gladness arises from the discovery that life continues to unfold with meaning, with connections of significance and delight. (p. 29)

And in fact, Noah’s sense of gladness and gratitude precedes God’s covenant. It is only after Noah built an altar and sacrifices to God that God “smelled the pleasing odor” (Gen. 8:20) and promised to sustain the world.

Our work in the university is the holy and delicate work of guiding and mentoring young adults through what is frequently the most tumultuous period of their lives: the years when they are between their childhood home and their adult home that exists on the horizon. It is a time frequently punctuated by darkness and loneliness and challenges to their worldview. We would not want it any other way, because that is how we become mature adults, capable of entering into commitments and covenants of our own. Our work, then, is to walk with our students through these challenging years, these years when they are testing commitments to people, causes, and careers. Our aim is to sustain them with encouragement and validation, so that they emerge from the moments of shipwreck with a deeper sense of self and commitment to the world.