What do you do when your best isn’t good enough?

Consider Edward W Spencer who would be called a hero by any standard, but he could not accept that accolade.  Spencer attended the Theology program at Northwestern University and was planning to graduate with the class of 1862 until he stumbled up the greatest maritime disaster in Great Lakes history. 

It was a stormy night on September 8, 1860 when Edward Spencer was walking along the shores of Lake Michigan with his friends at two in the morning when he heard cries of help echoing off the dark waters.  The Lady Elgin, a luxurious side-wheeled steam powered cruise ship of its day, was hit broadside by the unlit schooner Augusta.  30 minutes later, 400 passengers were left floating in the water, struggling to grab anything that would stay afloat despite the rough waters.  One band member was kept alive by his floating bass drum.  People were crying for help because the high breakers crashing onto the shoreline allowed for a strong undertow pulling people back out into Lake Michigan.  No one was able to swim faster than the currents would pull them.  Edward Spencer was a competitive swimmer who knew well Lake Michigan and these dangerous currents, and also the threat of hypothermia when the cold waters claimed lives.  Displaying undaunted courage his friends held a rope tied to the waist of Spencer while he plunged into the turbulent waters to grab survivors.  It was exhausting work. Overeager friends would pull him at the wrong time and drag him across rocks in their zeal and excitement.  For six hours Spencer pulled out survivors, till he tallied 18 people rescued, then collapsed from exhaustion.  Next thing he knew he awoke in a hospital bed in Evanston to view the face of his brother William.  Edward Spencer asked his older brother, “Did I do my full duty, did I do my best?”

Northwestern University Historical Marker

Spencer was never the same after that night.  He remained wheelchair bound, and his brother William tells the haunting story that psychologically his brother was never the same.  Edward Spencer left Northwestern University, had to drop out of school, and began a new life on the west coast.  Any casual observer who witnesses a hero collapse from physical exhaustion, while saving the lives of 18 survivors would agree, Spencer did his best!  But Edward Spencer did not believe this since he never stopped asking the question, “did I do my very best?”  His attention was on the 300 floating victims who did not survive the maritime disaster, and he was unable to rescue.  Would you say your life is worthwhile if you save one person, let alone 18?  Edward Spencer was in the right location and the right time of day, combined with his aquatic experience and his friends to back him up.  That is what I call a the providential hand of God helping people in God’s perfect timing.

To use your gifts to save lives is a rare thing.  Many people live their lives never witnessing one life saved due to them, let alone 18 lives saved.  Working as an EMT in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State gave me the opportunity to save lives directly using God’s gifts to rescue them.  This is one of the greatest joys to experience in one’s vocation.  When one person suffers through a tragic accident and my gifts were able to comfort and assist them.  What a thrill!  I wonder why Edward Spencer could not experience a sense of satisfaction from his heroic act. Instead the cries of those he could not save haunted his years.  Maybe this is a human blindside to always focus on what we can’t do rather than what we can.  Edward Spencer made a huge impact on 18 individuals that would forever be in his debt, and that was not enough?  We can only do what we are charged to do within our reach. When we overreach we risk taking on too much.  And we all know there is only one Savior who can take it all upon Himself, the rest of us are mere servants of Him.  All our gifts are in service to our Head, Jesus Christ our Lord and King.        

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