When Garry and I had been married about 18 months, we moved into an old, small apartment on BYU campus. Our new digs boasted cinder block walls, industrial grade carpet, and closets without doors. A bonus: no dishwasher.
Our life circumstances were in no way unique, but as full-time students and part-time employees, we felt busy and stressed. When we weren't working or studying, we just wanted to relax. This mentality led to a sink full of dirty dishes. Neither of us liked washing them and we gradually let them stack up. After a week (at least) we had a pretty big mess on our hands. That's when our home teachers wanted to visit. Every Mormon on the planet probably cleans the house (at least the visible living areas) a bit before a home teaching appointment, right? In order to avoid some embarrassment, we stacked up all of those plates and bowls and cups and pots and pans...and hid them in the oven. That's right. The oven. That way no one else would know our dirty little secret. It was quite satisfying at first, but pretty soon the facade of cleanliness gave way to guilt. So, finally, we started washing the dishes. It took quite a while to wash and dry and put everything away, but after that we never got too far behind on the dishes.
Today I shared this story during Primary sharing time. As I did, I pulled out lots of dirty, sticky dishes and displayed them on a table. Some had fresh maple syrup dripping, some were covered with ketchup and mustard, and some had the remnants of sandwiches, pasta, and rice. I had cups with crusty milk in the bottom or green smoothie on the sides. I displayed a bowl and a casserole dish leftover from German pancakes, and a small frying pan from the omelet Garry made this morning. I also placed a big handful of dirty silverware among the dishes. The kids gave lots of "gross!" and "ewww!" exclamations as I perfected my little display.
When I got to the oven part of the story, I stacked up all the dishes and put them in a plastic drawer I had brought along. When I closed the full drawer, the kids were shocked! Some even had their hands over their mouths. They couldn't believe the crazy thing I had done, especially because I had really put dirty dishes in an oven before.
That's when I asked the group what dirty dishes had to do with our Savior, Jesus Christ. Hands went up quickly (even in Junior Primary, where the oldest kids are seven). The kids drew the parallel I was looking for: dirty dishes are like our sins, and the Atonement provides a way for us to be clean again. We talked about our responsibilities in the repentance process (we have to do work to receive forgiveness) and also that repentance isn't possible without Jesus' help (without soap, our efforts are pointless). We talked about the need to repent (wash our dishes) every single day. Sometimes we have larger and more painful sins (big, dirty dishes, like the mixing bowl and casserole dish) that we can't wash ourselves. Our bishop can help us overcome those struggles.
I shared another real-life story to make this point. Quite recently, Zachary had dish duty at our house. He steadfastly refused to complete the chore, even though we have a dishwasher! With a family of seven, the dishes stack up very quickly, and after a few days, he faced a literal mountain of dirty dishes. He was very overwhelmed. Wouldn't you be?
One day while he was at school, wanting to help with the work but not take it away entirely, I washed all of the pots and pans. When he came home that night, the mountain was smaller and the task more possible. While a bishop can't actually do the scrubbing, he makes the repentance process possible in more serious situations.
That's when I invited a few children to wash some dishes. I dumped a few pitchers of water in the same drawer I had used as my "oven," squirted some soap in the tub, and offered a sponge. While the three kids took turns washing a dish, I showed some pictures of Book of Mormon scenes that represented a person or groups of people who had significant repentance experiences.
My favorite story on the subject is that of the group of Lamanites who converted to the gospel and thereafter called themselves Anti-Nephi-Lehies, or the people of Ammon. They had been ferocious warriors in the Lamanite army and had spent much of their lives slaughtering the Nephites. When they heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, they were sorry for all they had done and underwent what must have been a very difficult repentance process. As a token of their covenant not to fight anymore, they buried their weapons of war in the ground. I love that story, partly because of the physical, symbolic act they took to remind them of their desire to be clean.
As each Primary child cleaned a dish today, he or she held it up for all to see. The dish was shiny and bright. The kids were thrilled. I bore my testimony about the Atonement and the Savior's gift of repentance. I also challenged the children to think about repentance every time they helped their parents wash the dishes. That's a symbolic reminder they can see every day of their lives.