This is certainly a weird time to be a pastor. I've started preaching again but I have to admit that 'going to church on a Sunday' is proving a very different experience at the moment. I have no idea how well I am communicating with masked congregations although I'm taking heart from the fact that I still know when their eyes are open!
Handshakes are out of course and socially distanced chats are OK, although nothing like the real thing. But I have found that in some ways our regular Zoom service is proving much more satisfying because it allows us to engage in real fellowship. We share our joys and our concerns and I can honestly say that we detect the Spirit of God at work as we gather together. But then why should we be surprised. Jesus promised to be with His people when they gathered in His name and not in any particular location.
But as I travel around, I'm trying to remind everyone too that worship means much more than gathering together to sing songs and say prayers. We do well to remember that as we cope with the rules and recommendations emerging from the Senedd.
The apostle Paul summed it up well when he wrote a letter to the Christians in Rome in the mid first century AD: "Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will."
Paul wanted his friends to appreciate that they could worship God by offering up their lives in acts of sacrificial love. As one translation puts it: "So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering."
We can encourage each other. We can be generous. We can forgive one another and do our utmost to live at peace with each other. And we can pray for one another.
Let me give you one or two examples. Right back at the start of 'Covid', I received an unexpected letter through the post which included a cheque and a note that said something like this: "Please accept this small gift from the church. We are sorry we had to cancel the service but wanted to show you our love and concern for you."
In the same way, I received a message the other day from someone I haven't spoken to for at least a year. It seems it was 'Good Friends Day' (I had no idea) and he wanted me to know that he really appreciated what I had done for him over the years.
It doesn't take much effort to pick up the phone or send a card or a bunch of flowers to someone. It might prove a little more costly to look at our budgets and ask what we can do to help those we know are struggling, but I do know of churches and individuals who are doing just that. And in doing so they are worshipping God, even if their church doors are locked at the moment.
Yes, it will be great when we can throw away the masks, sing a favourite hymn and give each other a hug. Until then we can and must live within the regulations, but we can also worship the God who loves us by doing what we can to care for others on a daily basis.
Rob James is a Baptist minister, writer and church and media consultant to the Evangelical Alliance Wales. He is the author of Little Thoughts About a Big God.