• Kevin Burrell

Sapsucker: Words That Wound or Heal

Pop quiz. You’re walking in a forest and come across a strange pattern of shallow rectangular holes in methodical rows along a tree trunk. You’ve likely just stumbled upon:

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker and tree holes
  1. Evidence that woodland creatures play Tic-Tac-Toe.

  2. Tree waffles.

  3. The unique feeding tactic of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

I’ll assume you answered correctly. While the name might sound like the perfect cowboy-movie insult, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was considered noble enough to be the featured logo for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, hopefully offsetting that disparaging cowboy comment. A medium-sized black and white woodpecker with red facial accents and (no surprise here) a yellow belly, the sapsucker’s precise spreadsheet-like grid is a feeding strategy with two outcomes. The first is (no surprise again) to suck sap, although technically they sip rather than suck. These holes tend to be a bit deeper and more circular. But the shallower holes serve a different function: to wound the tree just under the outer bark with squares that create an ongoing flow of sap. The slow and steady drip of sap attracts insects to the sweet taste of sugar, in which they easily get stuck. It's a clever trap, and the bird scores some protein to go with those carbs.


The sapsucker in a more dignified light

In short, this bird uses its mouth to wound the tree and trap the prey. A simple word from our own human mouths can accomplish the same. The initial wound becomes the ever-flowing trap. Think of those things spoken deep in your past, either with intentional hurtfulness or tragic carelessness, that continue their relentless hold on you to this day—something hurtful and devastating that still lurks in your heart in defining ways, waiting for the next re-triggering. You’re not worth it. You’re never going to amount to much. You’re not very good at that. I don’t love you anymore. Or maybe it’s some weakness in your personality or your appearance that got exploited by the cruelty of others and that still lingers today. These words from ages ago still have power over us; they lock us in prisons of defensiveness or bitterness or self-loathing or unworthiness. We unwillingly use these words from the past to interpret the present. The mouths of others—intentionally or not—allow the wound to keep oozing its sticky sap, and our hearts take the bait.


Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker
© Patty Masten, used by permission

“Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire…” (James 3:5-6). We’ve felt the heat. But your tongue is no exception, and so we also have to own the ways in which we feed the flames of these wounds in the people around us. The better we know someone, the better we know what buttons to push to win the argument, prove the point, or put someone in their place. Marriage can be an especially deadly place for this. Over time we learn how to win, with verbal parrying that uses our spouse’s weakness against them. We may not even do it consciously, but in our carelessness, we expose and exploit the wounds. “My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” (James 3:10)

The gospel-equipped care of one sinner for another is a commitment not to use another’s wound against them for leverage or condemnation, but instead to guard that weakness as a sacred trust. “Love always protects.” (1 Corinthians 13:7) When we say in true Christlikeness, “Neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11), the sap loses its stick. We allow the other person to experience words that heal.

Consider two Western woodpeckers, the Ladder-backed and the Gila. Ladder-backed Woodpeckers remove the larvae of the agave beetle from yucca plants, and the Gila Woodpecker’s feeding habits ensure the health of the Saguaro Cactus. Both species actually remove from a plant the very sorts of beetles that would damage or kill it. They use their tongues to heal and give life (not to the bugs, true, but I’m OK with that if you are).

A commitment to life-giving words engages the old playback loops of You’re not worthy or You’re a failure with better words like I see great value in you. I believe in you. I forgive you. Perhaps those words are already in your past as great treasures that speak louder than the wounds. If not, let Jesus speak them into your present: the one who lifted people up with words like Come find rest and I call you friend and Neither do I condemn you. Those heal.


Gila Woodpecker cactus
Gila Woodpeckers in Arizona, © Tresa Moulton 2011, Macaulay Library

And even more, we get to steward those words into the lives of those around us. If you’re uncertain how to affirm the people around you, consider the ways in which Jesus has encouraged you. His words show radical love, radical forgiveness, radical acceptance! His words speak value, a willingness to heal by trading your wounds for his own. The reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus frees you from the devaluing words of your past, and even more so from the guilt of the ways you’ve devalued and hurt others. He heals, and frees us to heal.

Today, go practice some life-giving words with the people around you. “Freely you have received; freely give.” (Matthew 10:8)