Maybe we need an Extreme Planet Makeover.

As if 3.7 million people unemployed since January, tornadoes, and flooding were not enough, now we have swine flu. I am sure there are locusts warming up somewhere.

The difference between the first three disasters and swine flu is that the first three bring people together. Swine flu, on the other hand, makes us want to stay as far apart from each other as possible. People who are co-workers and neighbors suddenly become strangers in our midst if they show the slightest hint of a sniffle.

Barbara Brown Taylor has given us an excellent new book, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (HarperOne, 2009). Taylor explores our relationship with strangers in the chapter, “The Practice of Encountering Others.” Using Matt. 25:34-37 as a starting point, she explores the difference between philoxenia (love for the stranger) and xenophobia (fear of the stranger). Taylor points out that, for most of us, fear of the stranger comes much more naturally than the other.

It is impossible in a 2.2 million-member denomination for everyone to know each other. We can be strangers even in our own congregations. We can find ourselves greeting long-time members as visitors if they don’t sit in our pew zone. We can also find ourselves excluding from our internal membership roll those with whom we don’t readily agree.

We are coming to the end of the season of debate on the amendments to the Book of Order that were proposed by the 218th General Assembly (2008). Some of the votes on “Amendment B” have been surprising and close, which means the debates were probably very intense.

Having a strong difference of opinion can transform sisters and brothers in a presbytery into strangers, or move us closer to the community that God intends. For we are a church of strangers that God has chosen to call a people of faith. We must not become xenophobic, but answer the higher call to be philoxenic.

May the gracious love of God help us do just that, healing our hearts, souls and minds in Christ Jesus.