A Celebration of Otis

On Friday, August 6, family, friends and church gathered to remember and celebrate the life of Mark Wayne “Otis” Thornton. We cried, laughed, sang, ate, and drank. We celebrated life, his and our. We celebrated Life. And we gave thanks that we got to share it with him.

Here’s a link to the full service. Below are the thoughts I shared.
If you want to get a “Don’t Mess With Otis” #otisstrong tshirt, you can do that here. There are lots of great photos over on the book of faces, including his page and others.

Mark Wayne “Otis” Thornton

When a soldier dies they place his boots and his rifle and helmet  in memoriam? I feel like we need, right here, those combat boots held together by hope and gumption and copious amounts of duct tape, and a hammer. I’m guessing maybe Mark’s big sister Rebecca introduced him to the Trini Lopes song, and he spent the rest of his life collecting hammers, real and metaphorical, with which to hammer out danger, warning, justice, freedom, and most of all love. Thanks to his dreams for the not so tiny house, he left quite literally an enviable set of construction tools. But there were other tools, weren’t there? Also in his tool belt we would find his laptop, with big data Excel spread sheet on housing, a doo rag, a guitar, his grigri, his backpack, a subaru forester, a wine glass, a spiral bound comp book with pen, his bible and a book of poetry, and of course, fluffy. I’m sure you would add other things to this list. And we own many of these things – sans boots and cat mummy perhaps. So every time we take up those items to use them, or even simply brush a hand over them, we will remember and honor him. What a gift that is and will continue to be.

Hey there. Look at all you beautiful souls – smart, funny, talented, brave and strong. It’s humbling to be up here, but I volunteered as tribute. And like Otis says (having learned it I think from Amylyn) “We do hard things.” So here I am, and here we go.

For those who don’t know, my name is Ken, and Otis was my fraternity big brother in Farmhouse Fraternity at Texas Tech (guns up!). I showed up with a doo rag and earring and birkenstocks to this frat of mostly cowboys and preppies. They took one look at me and said, “See the guy up in the tree with the ponytail and combat boots held together by duct tape? That’s Otis, and he’ll be your big brother.” It took us a while to warm up to each other, but eventually I was drawn (tricked) into his orbit of idealistic and more than slightly obnoxious social justice warriors. We were self-righteous about our causes, but also ironically self-aware with tongue planted firmly in cheek. I suspect many of you had similar experiences with him in other settings – ASP, Vanderbilt, Habitat, Tarrant County, and here in Kingsport. 

Otis was a master at collecting meaningful friendships. He was attractive and engaging because he was curious about people, and because he was an epic storyteller. It doesn’t hurt that he lived some pretty fascinating stories first hand – some of them with many of you gathered here. Someone will need to tell the story of hiking through the train tunnel. Amylyn will have to narrate their encounter with the family of Grizzlys in Alaska. Otis would later tell us, and hopefully her, that was the moment he knew he was in love, when he was ready to lay down his life to protect hers. It took him a minute to fully act on that awareness, but we are all so glad he finally did. All together now, “Do not run!”

There are so many folks about whom we could say, “My life is different because you are part of it. Many relationships impact us in important ways. But of how many can we say, “My life is what it is in large part because of you? You taught me what it means to truly see those living in poverty. You taught me what it means to honor everyone’s home, even if it’s a place that isn’t a house. You challenged me to bring together faith and vocation in concrete ways. You taught me to play at least one cool song on the guitar. You taught me to use a framing square, and now I build stuff too. You taught me that, “It isn’t your ability or inability — it’s your availability.” My life took the trajectory it did in significant part because you showed me that we could “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living,” while still having a fierce wit, a contageous laugh, and a bowl of beans and rice that was always big enough for more folks to have some.

Life with Otis could be compared to those “If you give a mouse a cookie…” books by Laura Numeroff. See if you can do this with your life story: Farmhouse assigned Otis as my big brother. With Otis I went to the Wesley Foundation. With the Wesley we volunteered at Habitat. Our Habitat group  went to ASP. Our ASP group started a Second Helpings Soup Kitchen in two churches. Because of these experiences, I then went to seminary with the hopes of leading others in a life of service. At each of those turns, and every successive one, he was there to inquire, to listen, to encourage, to challenge, to accompany. 

Speaking of accompanying, how many of us have raised kids in Otis’ orbit? We all celebrate how much he loved being their uncle. He relished in the wonder and beauty of our children. I think they helped temper his angst and cynicism. Of course Caroline and Drew are first niece and nephew without compare. And, Mark Otis (Uncle Bobo to us) was also a godfather to so many. He would attend performances and games whenever he was in town. He would teach and play and laugh and inspire. These young ones will no doubt tell the next generation about this man and pass on the lessons of his life.

Freda, Jack and Rebecca, what an amazing human you raised. He may no longer have looked like the preppy kid who left arlington in 1985, but his heart was shaped by you and the people you placed in his life. He was at church, at youth group, and ultimately at ASP becaue of you. He loved, appreciated and admired you so very much. Thank you for launching him and sharing him with us all.

Amylyn. Oh friend. What an unfathomable joy it was for him to find himself back in your life, and to gain two amazing girls in the bargain. You two intuited so early that you as a team would be a force, like bennifer and brangelina, an entity unique and beautiful, that you would be AlOt. A hundred lifetimes with otis would not be enough, I think. And yet…

For now, we sing the christmas carols, 80s rock, and storyteller country songs, we quote the authors and read the scriptures and swing the hammers and write the letters. We show up and stand up and speak up, because he taught us to do this, encouraged us to do this, helped us to do this, relished when we did this, even if we “failed.” Be willing to fail spectacularly. Be willing to be uncomfortable for the sake of other’s comfort. Be willing to enjoy some of the fine things in life while naming that these are a luxury and a privilege not afforded to all. Build tables and kitchens and houses until everyone has enough and more than enough to share.

Speaking of which, you are enough. Yes, even you. Just as you are. You are beautiful, you are beloved, you are enough. He didn’t always know or receive this for himself, but he always wanted that for us.