Back in the valley of the sun

Science | Lost Dutchman State Park
The Superstition Mountains border Phoenix on the east. Jennifer grew to love hiking in the Superstitions when she was a teen-ager.

Forty-three and a half years ago on a hot Phoenix afternoon, I guided my 1974 baby-blue Ford LTD north on the Black Canyon Freeway. Jennifer, my new bride, was snuggled up next to me on the bench seat. Three hours earlier on that July 8th, we had been married at Central Christian Church in Mesa, just east of Phoenix. The church was a half mile north of the Mormon temple, and the temple was one mile east of where Jennifer was raised.

A campus ministry at the University of Illinois 1,600 miles away awaited us. For the next 2 hours, the car climbed out of the valley, ascending from 1200 feet above sea level in Phoenix to 7,000 feet by the time we reached Flagstaff.

At Flagstaff, we turned east and spent the next 10 days meandering our way across the country, stopping at my parents’ home in Colby, Kansas, and at my tiny one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, Kansas.

In Manhattan we picked up a U-Haul, which we drove to Champaign-Urbana, towing our Ford LTD. We had a hide-a-bed, a small oak table and chairs, a box springs and mattress, and a few boxes. Pushing eastward, we held hands as we passed Kansas City and St. Louis before finally pulling into Champaign-Urbana, our destination in east-central Illinois.

I thought the Sonoran desert where Phoenix is located was hot. The day we pulled into the Big 10 college town of 100,000 people, it was 95 degrees with 95 percent humidity. When we stepped out of the U-haul truck Jennifer said, “I can’t breathe.” Those are days you labor to inhale and exhale. You wipe the sweat off your forehead and pray, “Help me Jesus.”

Right off the bat, we moved into our first home, the empty church parsonage of the Webber Street Church of Christ in east Urbana. The Webber Street church was a financial supporter of the campus ministry where I would serve. The church elders offered us the two-story, 4-bedroom parsonage immediately next to the church building — 12 feet from the door of the church to the door of the parsonage. After we got our belongings in the house, it looked almost the same as before we moved in – empty.

I was eager to jump into campus ministry and started walking around campus just days after we arrived. I loved the campus. I was 23 years old and raring to go. I remember thinking we’d have a long campus ministry – probably 5 years, maybe even 6 or 7.

Well, we stayed 5 years all right.  Plus 38! Champaign-Urbana became our home. We became townies, as much as you can in a college town where people are always coming and going.

And then finally last summer we did what we had seen people do for 43 years. We moved. All the way back to the Sonoran desert to Phoenix, where Jennifer was raised and where we were married on 7-8-78 (July 8, 1978).

We arrived in Phoenix on August 10, almost 5 months ago.

Sitting in our Tempe, Arizona, condo, this morning (one the SE side of Phoenix), I can’t help but reflect on the ride Jennifer and I have been on since we pulled that baby-blue Ford LTD out of the valley of the sun and headed north toward Illinois back in 1978. 

It was a good run, but there is a time for everything. This past winter Jennifer and I decided to make the move and return to Phoenix. We did it. We sold our Urbana home. We bought a Tempe, AZ, condo, and we’re here!

I brought my Pastor-to-Pastor ministry with me, and that’s been good. There are all kinds of opportunities with hundreds of churches in the valley. This fall I’ve stayed busy meeting lots of pastors. There definitely is a place for this ministry here.

And Jennifer brought her retirement with her. After teaching for 30 years at the University of Illinois, she retired to do “friends and family.”  That means pickle ball with old friends she grew up with, reading lots of books, hiking and exploring the mountain trails that surround Phoenix and spending LOTS of time with granddaughters Malin and Britton, who get an extraordinary number of votes on whatever we do next. (Our daughter Maddie and son-in-law Drew Hall moved from Indianapolis to Phoenix last spring for jobs.)

I used to tell my mom late in her life that home is where you are. Now that I’m here in the valley of the sun, I am trying to follow the advice I gave to her.

I am here. We made a good move. This is home. And this is the verse I try to keep in the forefront of my mind: “Teach me to number my days carefully, that I may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)