I was conversing with someone recently about how the pandemic restrictions on gatherings have affected church services. It has been very hard for me, and many others, not to be able to have church in person. I miss being able to shake people's hands, give them a hug, and experience the presence of Spirit in the special way that only occurs when a group of people do worship well together.

My reflection on this led me to the thought that this time of isolation has really put the emphasis for those of us who try to practice a faith on personal behavior, rather than religious ritual. Zoom or Facebook services can be wonderful, but they are just not the same as corporate worship in person. No sermon delivered online can electrify its hearers the way one delivered face to face can do. We are doing our best in very difficult circumstances, and, heaven knows, it is much better than nothing. But it is not the worship we crave.

However, now is a good opportunity to look at what we mean when we talk about "practicing" our religion. Is that about what we don't do (drink, swear, dance, hang out with people who have different political views than our own, eat meat on Fridays, etc.)? Is it about not having anything to do with women who have had abortions, people who are divorced, who are gay or trans, who violate other social norms that we hold dear?

Is is about saying certain prayers at certain times of day, perhaps in a certain place in your house? Or maybe about eating, or not eating, certain foods?

Or is it about how we treat other people? How we show kindness, even though we're having a hard day ourselves, how we look for opportunities to be generous and show our gratitude for life and its blessings. Is it about cultivating humility, patience, the courage to speak out against injustice on behalf of those who are less powerful than ourselves?

Religion would not be religion without some "practices," some rituals and guiding tenets. But, as many religious traditions, including Christianity, teach, true religion is not about following rules, or making sure others follow the rules, or collecting points by doing all the things you're supposed to. Nor is it about worshiping in a particular place. It's about becoming more human by identifying with the suffering of others and taking the steps you can to relieve it. Often those steps are as simple as offering a kind word or simply listening with genuine caring to what's on someone else's mind.

Asking religious congregations to refrain from gathering indoors for now has nothing to do with persecuting the faithful or taking away their right to religious expression. Indeed, it might be seen as loving our neighbors to put others' well-being ahead of our own desire for the familiar joys and comforts of in-person services.

There is nowhere God is not. Whatever tradition we belong to, we can practice our religion, incorporating its spirit and teachings into our lives, without stepping through the door of a place of worship. Because active caring for others is so central to so many faiths, I hope that virtual services, for now, can sustain our lived, in-the-flesh faith until the day when gathering is safe again.

I pray that day will come soon.

Whatever you celebrate, may it be filled with love and joy.

Sarah E. Reynolds is editor of The Republican Journal.