Hinkley, Ohio is a small township located about 25 miles south of Cleveland. At a glance, it is home to cabin-like residences tucked away in its densely wooded landscape. The Cleveland MetroParks has aptly extended its parks system to include Hinkley Reservation. This 2,800-acre tract is laced with 26 miles of hiking trails and six miles of horse-riding trails. The public park offers swimming and canoeing in the pristine waters of Hinkley Park Reservoir Lake. Adjacent to the reservoir is Whipp’s Ledges, where adventurous visitors can climb well-marked rocky paths that ascend 350 feet above the lake. Wherever they go, outdoor types can find plenty of room to run and play among the numerous picnic groves, ball fields and open grassy meadows.
Another draw for Hinkley Reservation is a spot called “Buzzard Roost.” This corner of the park is locally celebrated for buzzards that come here to roost and mate every spring. Nature lovers gather at this site to view the buzzards flying in to complete their annual northern migration. The buzzards are turkey vultures who, unlike other birds of their species, don’t kill their prey. Instead, they consume the existing dead animals they find.
The migration pattern of these birds was first discovered in 1957 by a local news reporter. He tracked the arrival of the birds for 30 years and found them true to their Hinkley destination every March 15th. After this remarkable finding was reported, the Chamber of Commerce marketed the sightings as its claim to fame. Hinkley is now undoubtedly known throughout Northern Ohio as “the home of the buzzards.”
Aware of these amenities, I planned a day for Barry and I to hike the trails of Hinkley one Saturday in July. Driving south, we found the park entrance near the reservoir. We parked near the boathouse where the canoe rental was. Across from the boat dock we saw a map posting all the hiking trails including Whipp’s Ledges. We decided to go on a five-mile hike encircling the lake and easily found the path markings to follow.
The sights and sounds of Hinkley did not disappoint. We gazed across the lake, shimmering in the sunlight, and saw paddleboats, canoes and kayaks lazily making their voyages. At the tip of the lake, we enjoyed the seclusion of the marshes and emerged into a canopy of long-established woods. Ending our five miles, we crossed at the causeway where the reservoir gently spilled over into a retaining pond. There, children splashed in the cool, shallow water, caught minnows, and played with buckets of sand.
As we walked the remainder of the trail, I looked down and saw a small, brown snake writhing on the path near my foot. Instinctively, I let out a gut-level scream.
“What’s wrong?” Barry said, coming to my rescue.
“There’s a snake on the trail!” I squealed. He was worried because I had let out a scream like I had been attacked by an anaconda!
“It’s just a small woods snake. It won’t hurt you,” he said calmly.
That was true, but I was immersed in fear at the moment. I dutifully warned other hikers who we met going the other direction to be careful of the snake on the path! I finally settled down, realizing that my fear was unfounded, looming larger than the threat the snake actually posed.
Admittedly, the small snake was not an anaconda. Unlike buzzards, anacondas aren’t indigenous to Ohio. They make their home in the swamps of South America, not on the hiking trails of Hinkley. Unlike some species of snakes, anacondas don’t bite and inject poisonous venom into their prey. Instead, they wrap their, possibly 17 feet, 200 lb., bodies around their victim and strangle it to death. I reacted like I encountered an anaconda instead of a small, harmless woods snake, like Barry said.
Barry and I finished our hike and arrived at our car with no further incidents. Regardless of the critters we discovered in nature, we were delighted by the idyllic scenes of Hinkley.
Let’s use the image of that carefree stroll in the woods to understand the figurative language that Jesus used to convince His followers to trust in Him and be free from fear. He began by promising freedom to His Disciples. “If you abide in my word, then you are truly disciples of mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31-31) This statement begs the question, “Free from what?” We can be free from the basis of all fear, which is the fear of death. The Word of God explains how to have that freedom. By believing in Christ’s death on the Cross that conquered sin and death on our behalf, we can look to Jesus for the payment for our sin. Accepting His sacrifice releases us from guilt, punishment, and the fear of eternal death. Christ’s resurrection proves that death no longer has a hold on us. Although we die, we live again in Christ.
Jesus concluded, “If therefore, the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.” (John 8:36) Because of Jesus, we are set free from slavery to sin and no longer have to obey it. Instead, we follow the commands of Jesus and choose the path, like the well-marked trails of Hinkley. We walk away from sin and walk unhindered towards God.
The fear of death is the basis for all other fears that we may have, real or imagined. If that fear is conquered by the assurance of life in Christ, then every other fear is a lesser fear and potentially vanquished. Again, let’s picture the anaconda. It is a huge snake, in a class all its own. This represents the grip that the fear of death has on the human psyche. There is nothing that constricts our thinking and movement like deep-seated fear. It stops us in our tracks, immobilizing us from the most mundane activities. When fear visits, panic makes us gasp for breath like we are being suffocated.
Belief in Jesus breaks the bondage to fear. The invasive voice that says, “What if the worst happens to you?” no longer haunts your mind. It trails off as a faint, inaudible whisper while the assurance of God’s love takes command. Then we can rationally distinguish between what is life-threatening and what is not. The dark clouds of doom and gloom give way to a life of hope-filled possibilities.
Jesus continued His case against fear by referring to Himself as “The Gate.” “Jesus therefore said to them again, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep… I am the gate; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out and find pasture.’” (John 10:7-9) His figurative language is a word picture describing well-protected sheep, coming and going as they please, finding safe pasture to roam and graze. This is like the liberty we experienced on our hike in Hinkley. We were out in the open air with no cares, no threats, and free to be ourselves! That is God’s goal for us— to experience His unequivocable love, safety, and care. To love is us to take good care of us, and He does that perfectly!
The psalmist celebrates the absence of fear that comes from trusting in God. “The Lord is the defense of my life; whom shall I dread?” (Psalm 27:1) The Apostle Paul re-states the freedom from fear that he found in Christ. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) Nothing and no one can make us afraid because God’s love overpowers it all. We are not constricted nor constrained. Our hearts are free, and we can walk fearlessly. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love, and discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7) God will empower us to push through debilitating fears, seeing them as small wood snakes instead of giant anacondas. He wants us to step out onto the trails He marks out for us and follow them to the destination He has envisioned. This is how we live in Christ— in freedom, unafraid, and on a sure path. We will surely marvel at what He shows us along the way.