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Affirmation photo
Members of Affirmation's 2014 leadership team attend the "This is the Place" international conference at the University of Utah.

PROVO — The God of the Restoration nourishes each individual, especially "the hopeless, the helpless, the despised and marginalized," two prominent LDS intellectuals said Sunday at the annual Affirmation conference for LGBT Mormons.

"In our Mormon tradition we worship a God who chose to love us, and by so doing he made himself vulnerable to our suffering," said Fiona Givens, who with her husband Terryl is author of "The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life," and "The Crucible of Doubt."

The couple spoke at a morning devotional on the final of the conference's three days.

The goal, Terryl Givens said in an interview after the devotional, was to remind conferencegoers that the inescapability of suffering is fundamental to Mormon understanding of mortality.

"As Elder Marlin K. Jensen so compassionately pointed out years ago, the particular challenges — quandaries — that face gays within our faith community are unique, but there may be more in common with the crosses they bear and the crosses that many other constituencies bear that it's good to be reminded that we all are confronted with feelings of alienation, of isolation, of not being understood, of not being recognized, of not being witnessed," he said.

Fiona Givens said the Restoration scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints portray a deep passion, one who's core attribute is love. In one chapter of the Book of Mormon — Jacob 5 — that divine love is illustrated by the use of the words preserve and save 20 times and the word nourish 22 times.

The chapter is an allegory. A Lord of an olive grove tends and nourishes the olive trees. In the middle of the chapter, the Lord collapses under the weight of grief and anxiety.

"It is important to recognize, I think," Fiona Givens said, "that the Lord is not concerned for the olive grove as a whole, but for each individual tree. 'It grieveth my soul that I should lose this tree,' (he says). He spends as much time nourishing the individual trees in the nethermost part of the grove where the hopeless, the helpless, the despised and marginalized are gathered, as he does among the other trees, who while struggling are making more progress."

She called the analogy plain; each person is a tree in that olive grove for whom the Lord "ceaselessly tends and cares, nourishing us in ways that in our quiet times, amidst the pain, the marginalization and loneliness, we can sometimes see the divine hand working gently and persistently in our lives, in meekness, in kindness and in love unfeigned.

She said at baptism Mormons make a promise to bear one another's burdens.

"I'm a very visual person," she said, "and when Christ says pick up your cross and follow me, I see him up before him dragging his cross, and we're all spread out behind him carrying our own. There isn't a single person in this room not carrying a cross. We're all carrying crosses."

She said every Latter-day Saint who wishes to help bear another's burden must touch that person's cross to understand the nature and depth of the pain being carried.

It is only then that the other can truly mourn with the one who mourns, another promise Latter-day Saints make at baptism.

"Platitudes fail," she said, adding, "It is only then that we can truly comfort, that we can be good friends."

College and NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young attended the devotional with his wife Barb, whose brother Mike is gay. A Sunday School teacher in his LDS congregation, Steve Young said he makes the Givens' books integral to many of his lessons.

"They distinguish the restored gospel in its love and in a God who weeps, who is at risk with us," he said. "It just resonates for any audience, but particularly for this one."

The Youngs appeared at the 2013 Affirmation conference.

"There's some real spiritual warriors here that are really inspirational," Steve Young said.

Terryl Givens used several biblical sources to illustrate what he called the loneliness of discipleship, a path he said all must tread to follow and find Christ. The Bible describes Christ, he said, "as he is betrayed by Judas, left without the support of his three closest friends in the garden, forsaken by them all moments later, denied by Peter, repudiated by his religion's chief priests, and finally abandoned by his Father. We can barely begin to fathom the agony in his recollection of treading the winepress alone."

He spoke extensively about the Mormon concept of pre-existence and his belief that God then was transparent about the difficulty of the upcoming journey. Latter-day Saints believe one-third of spirits in heaven rebelled against God's plan for an earthly journey.

"It's reasonable to me," Givens said, "that the pain and anguish he advised us to anticipate was sufficiently terrifying to dissuade a third of our heavenly siblings to recoil in horror and choose another path."

The rest chose the more difficult but enriching path, knowing what Givens said can be learned in the biblical story of the young rich ruler who asked Christ what more he needed to do.

"You can be assured," Givens said, "that Christ, beholding you, loves you," in and through and because of our struggles and failures.

"Having set his heart upon us, he has devised from the beginning a way to bring us all back to his presence, to draw us back, by the power of his love, though tangled and torturous the way always is, but in the end none of us will be able withstand the power of that irresistible love."

John Gustav-Wrathall, member of the Affirmation board of directors, said many of the people at the conference can relate to darkness and struggle, and the Givens' messages resonated with the conference's theme, "Celebrate the Light."

"It's profoundly encouraging to have fellow Saints come here and remind us that it's really in the darkness where all the good stuff happens," he said, "that we have to taste the bitterness to appreciate the good.

"Fiona's message about how intimately God is with us in this was just profound."

According to its website, Affirmation supports lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, same-sex attraction Mormons and former Mormons, as well as the families, friends and church leaders who seek to help them live healthy, productive lives consistent with their faith or heritage.

The other speaker at the devotional was Todd Richardson, Affirmation's senior vice president. He spoke about the tendency in Mormon culture to avoid conflict, even though most conflict in organizations is constructive.

A small percentage of conflict becomes intractable, more difficult no matter what is done.

"As LGBT Mormons and allies, no matter our place in the church, we need to do more, we need to lean into the conflict more than we feel comfortable with," he said. "I realize, however, the conflict is intractable."

Richardson said researchers found the one strategy that works in intractable conflicts is story sharing, and he encouraged LGBT people to share their stories.

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com