The 2018-2019 season will probably be the final year NBA superstar and elder statesmen Dirk Nowitzki dons his Dallas Mavericks jersey, as retirement seems imminent. Over his time in the league he racked up an impressive career, ingratiating himself to the city of Dallas after delivering a championship 13 years in the making, slaying an unstoppable juggernaut in the process. His reputation as a beloved and hilarious player is only superseded by one fact: he played his entire career for a single team. In a world where we find ourselves relentlessly bombarded with distractions, where we are restless and rootless, his decision to stay in one place is a model for us all.
To clarify how impressive this is, consider the NBA, a league which has been around since 1946, which currently has an average career lasting only 4.5 years, has witnessed Nowitzki in his 21st season do this longer than anyone else. He is beloved. However, his relationship with and in the city of Dallas has not always been illustrious.
Rootedness takes time to build.From the beginning of his career, Nowitzki faced various challenges and criticisms, which grew over time. Detractors were especially noticeable after losing in the 2006 NBA Finals. Then, after being upset from the first round of the 2007 playoffs by the eighth-seeded Warriors, the noise remained even amidst his winning the league’s Most Valuable Player award. The challenges grew. It would have been easy for him to forfeit his ethic during this portion of his career or find a new team—because we’ve seen many players leave for greener pastures or better opportunities, but he chose to remain. Even following his team’s 2011 thrilling victory run over the Miami Heat, others wondered how the franchise’s centerpiece would fit into the future. And through it all—the criticism, the unheralded victories, and everything in between—he chose to stay, repeatedly.
This feat is admirable, but our social milieu accentuates how special it is, with many reasons contributing to it. Unplugging from technology is nearly impossible, making it easier for matters worldwide constantly to vie for our attention while we remain ignorant of happenings in our own backyard. Endless distractions abound. David Foster Wallace focused on this concept, the relentless battery of unending pleasure in entertainment. Add the compounding effects of being everywhere, physically and mentally, and it is easy to be nowhere at any given moment.
Loneliness too, plays a part, and suddenly the desire for what’s next coalesces around insecurities, desires, and exhaustion, ensuring we can always go quickly enough never to confront these things. There is also the fact that travel, whether for jobs or school, renders it possible to explore new endeavors often enough to keep from growing roots.
Though the Christian faith addresses life’s concerns, it is easy to flatten wisdom to platitudes, insight to banality. The example set forth by Nowitzki paints an array of enviable qualities, but the Bible is prescient with respect to explaining the importance and benefits of manifest presence.
A prominent theme in the Bible is God’s presence with his people, starting in the garden of Eden and seen in the Tabernacle, the incarnation of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit’s anointing of his people, all the way through to the new city of Revelation. He is known as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, attendant to those whom he protects.
Some believe Daniel 10 intimates certain spiritual beings are connected to a specific parcel of land. But God, being transcendent over the whole earth bears an authority over every square inch, giving the land and taking Israel away from it in their exile. The land would continue to be important throughout the remainder of the Old Testament.
However, God’s timeline is not always the one we want, as the mismatch between one for whom “one day is as a thousand years” and us, who love Amazon’s two-day shipping is apparent. After all, Joseph spent time in prison before being given his shot, and Moses too was in Midian for roughly 40 years before his story picks up.
Not every story highlights this in the same way: for example, Jesus heals a man who was paralyzed and who had been lowered from the roof by four men. There are things the text does not give us and exist in realm of speculation, but it is hard to imagine friends willing to do this for a total stranger instead of someone they lived their life with. It seems much more likely they had a rich history together.
Even the established networks we see in Acts hint at how essential these staples of the community are: after Peter is released from prison he makes his way to the home of Mary, the mother of John, where people are gathered; Lydia has a business and social capital which ultimately serve the church. The correlation between presence and place is so important, we even see the bones of Joseph returned to his homeland after Israel left Egypt.
The theme of being present is littered throughout the Bible and offers several points of application. However, this list is not exhaustive.
Rootedness takes time to build. Even though are presented with boundless opportunities to travel, to learn, to be distracted, we must not forget that their toll is the cost of being here. To be present requires sacrifice. Nowitzki, for example, when he chose to remain in Dallas for his whole career, gave up close to an estimated $200 million dollars and potentially countless other opportunities to join championship-ready teams. It is nearly impossible to calculate everything he conceded. For us to build these ties may require surrendering a dream, but the dividends it pays out may be worth it to slow down and take the arduous work of commitment seriously. It is also important to remember patience is essential, since we know our timeline is simply different from God’s. But sacrificing constructs bonds not easily broken, whether it be for people or a place. While reading stories it is easy to gloss over the reminders that people waited for years or decades before they saw what God was doing. When considering what it looks like to stay put, it is necessary first to consider the cost.
If we hope to fight back against restlessness we remember—our faith itself was implanted and embodied in a time and place, among a selected people.Second, choosing to remain grounded prepares us in a unique way, forging character and growth. It is easy to run away when things are hard, to want to be somewhere we want instead of where we should be. Characters who do this in history are plentiful. But fortitude of heart and strength of faith are not forged in temperate conditions, nor do they run from the hammer which shapes them. Such resolve allows us to approach challenges with the kind of virtue necessary to endure them, but also gives way to the conditions and community which allow us to face them together. Thankfully, the Christian tradition has much to say about self-denial.
On top of this, Nowitzki is a prime example of how rootedness and commitment to one location produces moments to lead and disciple. The NBA’s best leaders are often those synonymous with their franchises, for whom the chance to leave is rarely more than the cull of empty threats. Kobe Bryant spent 20 seasons with the Lakers, Tim Duncan had 19 with the Spurs, and Dirk Nowitzki is finishing his 21st season with the Mavericks. His sacrifice allowed others to come in and grow, to receive opportunities that they may have otherwise missed, and to learn. He did not walk away when things got hard and stayed long enough to witness a turnaround. The apostle Paul spent time traveling, but after he continued his journey and left a city, it fell to those residents to build that church up. It is an eye for the future which allows hardship to be endured.
If we want to witness a parallel to discipleship in action, we need look no further than the Tall Baller from the G to see how it modeled. His knowledge of the team, of the league, of work ethic all bred an incredible culture. He even changed the world around him by the nature of his character. When a story broke alleging that a prominent Mavs executive had been sexually harassing women and other issues came to light, the locker room was revealed to be a safe space for female employees—a testimony to the culture of its leader and a radical inverse of what others consider acceptable “locker room” talk.
Finally, an established presence helps create a rich community we would otherwise miss. Dirk did not win a championship alone; it took the combined effort of a sharp head coach, a brilliant general manager, and a charismatic owner, not to mention a team ready to sacrifice for each other to achieve that goal. Likewise, our community is not simply composed of our closest and immediate friends, though they are essential. Rather, it is built by co-workers we have seen daily for years, baristas we interact with, and friends from churches. It is built upon the overlap of spheres of people with varying degrees of closeness, all of whom help us to thrive and stay put. It’s part of why leaving is so difficult—we are not simply uprooting our own life, but parts of others too.
Even a physical church testifies to our embeddedness. It offers a firm, immovable place where we can go and simply be—a home away from home, an enclave and refuge among the tumultuous waves of everyday life. For this reason, even though we claim that the church is not a building but a people, it is still helpful to have a space where we can be present. Churches, people, cemeteries—the things that we take for granted or that we miss when we are always on the go serve to remind us our roots are not easily packaged up and moved around. These are real locales which exist outside of the digital sphere and tether us to a place and a people, that slow us down and recalibrate our focus.
If we hope to fight back against restlessness we remember—our faith itself was implanted and embodied in a time and place, among a selected people. While we are constantly pulled in every direction and gripped with loneliness, we might start to think the quick fix is always just a move, a friend, a city away. But our efforts at racing to find contentment elsewhere may be Sisyphean—the harder we struggle against slowing down, the harder it is to build roots; the more we fight against being in one place, the more we need it. High levels of commitment and longevity in one spot seem to be becoming a rarity, but we are not without examples, nor precedent. There is a reason biblical imagery highlights trees with deep roots, and if we are apt to look and listen, we too can develop roots in our faith, communities, and personal lives as well.