Earlier this week three police officers burst into our home, pinned my hands behind my back and handcuffed them, immobilising the use of my arms. Then one of them declared,
You are under arrest for potential benefit fraud! We are taking you to the station to be detained. You don't have to say anything, but whatever you say will be brought up in Court. My wife flew into hysterics as I was escorted to the waiting police van, an imposing vehicle with a blacked out window on each side. Just my rotten luck that three of my neighbours, one family living next door to my right, and two other families living to my left, happen to have gathered for a neighbourly rendezvous at next door's front garden. All mouths were silent and all eyes fixed on me as I was led to the van.
At the station, I was held at Reception, from where I was told that I had to be kept in custody for two nights rather than the normal one, as the Benefit Fraud Investigation Officer will be taking the next day off to take her kids to Thorpe Park amusement resort. Ah, the effect of schools being out for the Easter break. But again, I could not help detect an edge of sarcasm in the Receptionist's voice, as if such inconveniences would bring a level of disruption to what would otherwise have been a smooth running of legal matters. I then cried in a panicking tone why can't the Officer look into the matter straight away. Their answer to that was, she was busy dealing with the same case with an inmate in the cell opposite the corridor to where I would be confined.
I was led to my cell, pushed in with such force that I ended up sprawled on the floor, next to the dismal mattress lying on a metal spring frame positioned up against the stone-grey wall. Then the heavy steel door slammed behind.
When the dust began to settle midway through convalescence following a major heart operation, all I needed was a temporary benefit to tide us over until I return to work. So how unsettled we both became when an official letter arrived through the post, requesting me to attend an interview, bringing all documents such as bank statements, proof of earnings and outgoings to what appears to be a question mark over the genuineness of our claim. We were both upset and frustrated, and I might as well have faced arrest. How much more do they want from us? On initial application, I attended interviews and filled in enough forms to decimate a forest of its trees. But I am aware that it takes just a tiny clause in the conditions to be overlooked, and this whole system of benefits can go pear-shaped in an instant. I have heard about Court cases and massive pay-back debts, even arrests and imprisonment as a result of benefit ineligibility, or even fraud.
And that is the point. Claiming benefits can be like walking on eggshells. All it takes is for one faceless clerk at the desk to spot something, and my eligibility is called into question, which can result in a tribunal preceding paying back all what I have already spent on day-to-day living. So off I sauntered to the Benefit Office, a walk of a couple of miles as part of my healing and post-op rehab. The officer I was appointed to see arrived twenty minutes late, but one glance and somehow I sensed that I was in no danger. She then explained that there was a dispute in the office whether I was at a pension status, and if so, would I want the benefit to be backdated well into last year. Had I said yes, then the interview would have proceeded, and I would have had to submit all the proof documents. Instead, I told her that I was working throughout the whole of last year, and therefore I didn't need the extra money. She looked pleased, and the meeting was over, assuring me that the present benefit we were currently receiving will remain unaffected. What a relief!
But now and again, I guess that such incidents are trip-ups which spoils what is otherwise a calm period of convalescence following a major heart operation. I can look at this restful period in either one of two ways. I can either see it as a time of anxiety, fearing whether I still have a window cleaning business to return to, along with the possibility of enduring the last three years of my working life as unemployed, and facing a grim future of being called in to the Job Centre to attend frequent interviews for eligibility in claiming Job-seekers Allowance. Or to see this period as more of a sabbatical than a time of recovery, and enjoy the benefit of work abstinence.
And I'm honest to admit that I do see this period as a sabbatical, and making the most to enjoy it. I think that the first thought of returning to work would make me feel downhearted, but having similar past experiences shows that once back at work, I don't look back. And what I find so enjoyable about sabbaticals is that they are not only endorsed in the Bible, but specifically commanded by God through Moses to the nation of Israel. In Leviticus 25:1-7, Moses writes that for six years the whole of Israel, who are mostly landowners, may work on their land - sowing, reaping, and harvesting their crops - but on the seventh year, no work must be done on their farmlands. Instead, the land must rest for a year to the Lord God. During that time, the landowner has little to do but to rest and enjoy the experience. So serious God was in this matter, that throughout the whole period when Israel was a kingdom, from the start of King Saul's reign at approximately 1080 BC, to the end of the reign of King Zedekiah, some five hundred years later, the nation disobeyed that commandment, working the land continuously over the centuries. With seventy years of rest the land owed to God, the last of Israel, mostly of Judah, was exiled to Babylon under its king, Nebuchadnezzar, for seventy years (2 Chronicles 36:17-21.)
We as Christians are not bound by this sabbatical ruling, mainly because God has not given any land with specific boundaries to the Church as he did with Israel. Rather, all believers in Jesus Christ makes up a nation within nations on a global scale, without any land of its own. But furthermore, if any Christian believer attempts to keep this law, even in his own back garden, then he is obliged to keep the whole Law, according to what Paul has written to the churches in Asia (Galatians 5:3).
Yet having said that, I think there are wonderful benefits in taking a sabbatical after so many years of work and daily routines. Unfortunately, during this election campaign, if any political party leader suggested giving sabbaticals to every long-serving employee, every business leader would throw up his arms in horror! This was already hinted on when one party leader suggested three paid days off every year for voluntary work for all employees. It was no surprise that company bosses were quickly up in arms over such a proposal.
God commanded every Hebrew landowner to take a sabbatical every seven years. With me, I'm taking one now due to health reasons, and I have experienced the benefit of taking such a long break. The last one I took was 18 years previously in 1997. This was when I had taken just over eleven weeks off work, out of which ten weeks were to backpack around the world, visiting Singapore, Australia, and California. The 1997 sabbatical was carefully planned. I made sure that I landed back at London Heathrow Airport on a Wednesday, exactly ten weeks to the day after taking off from the same location. This allowed me four clear days to get over post-holiday blues, which in my case, was quite severe, before getting out of bed the following Monday morning to start work.
This sort of travel has been something I would love to do, together with my wife. However, at present, Alex being confined to a wheelchair while out of doors makes such a proposition very difficult, but not impossible. While waiting to board a flight from Palermo to London in 2006, we watched two or three passengers in wheelchairs board the 'plane before the rest of us. This was something I had never forgotten, and it offers us some hope for the future where flights are concerned. But as we discussed between us on several occasions, slow travel across Europe by train and ferry has a strong appeal for me in particular, but Alex is happy to go along with it. I recall back in the early 1970's when I boarded a boat train from London Victoria to Rome Termini, alighting at the Kent port of Folkstone to board the ferry to cross the Channel before disembarkation at the French port of Boulogne, from where the easy recognisable Ferrovia di Italia train awaited us for the long journey across western Europe to Rome. Unfortunately, over forty years of rail travel development has eroded the rather awkward yet such memorable mode of slow travel, which no air travel can equal such nostalgic experiences.
I thank the Lord for living at a time when both advance medicine and the welfare system are in place to help someone with the likes of myself overcome a serious cardiac condition. Perhaps we tend to think of ourselves as the fortunate generation, one of the post War-born Baby Boomers, who perhaps enjoyed the best of things in human history. But as a counter-thought, I also wondered whether we as a society has somewhat became sissified with the advance of technology. For example, while we were happy to play in the street as schoolchildren, today's youth seem to remain indoors, addicted to playstations and computers. We did not mind being outdoors unsupervised, whether playing by a stream or in a more serious game of street-side cricket. Now, what I have heard at least, kids are not allowed out to play without some form of adult supervision. Schoolchildren in my day cycled to school each morning, or walked, like I did, if they did not own a bicycle. No boy at least, would even think about a school run in Mum's car, as that would have been considered wimpish to the extreme.
So likewise benefits. My father who has worked all his life to support us as children, had never claimed benefit throughout his days. Maybe if I had followed the same route as he did, and built a nest egg for a rainy day, I too could have gone through the whole cardiac procedure and convalescence without drawing a single penny from the State. Perhaps I would have travelled a lot less than I actually did, but I do wonder whether I would have made a better achievement in life than at present.
And with no possible fear of arrest.