Yesterday, after I left my prefabricated hut in Baghdad's heavily fortified International Zone and made the journey of just one mile to St George's, the city's Anglican Church, I was greeted by more than 150 excited children.
"Abouna, Abouna," they cried, using the Arabic word for "Father". "This year we are going to have the best Christmas ever!"
I have to be escorted to my church by Iraqi Special Forces in armoured cars. As I took off my bulletproof clothes, I thought about the children's optimism.
St George's is still surrounded by razor wire and barricades to deflect bomb blasts. We cannot walk Baghdad's streets safely as we could in the days of Saddam and my parishioners tell me terrible stories of death and destruction, almost daily.
But the children are right. There is a sense in the air that things are slowly changing and this Christmas, for the first time in many years, will be a time of hope.
Last Christmas it was far too dangerous for us to hold our services in our church. We met, instead, in the prime minister's office. It may sound grand but for most of the time we had no electricity.
We managed to enjoy ourselves thanks, in part, to a pile of presents donated by an American church and brought to us by the US military.
. . . Life for everyone in Baghdad has been unbelievably difficult over the past five years. But now there are real signs of hope. I know things are changing for the better because my Iraqi congregation tells me so.
The most noticeable improvements are with the electricity supply and security. In summer, Baghdad got perhaps half an hour's electricity a day. Now it gets up to eight hours' supply.
And while this is still a deadly city, fewer people are being killed. The gunfire and explosions in the streets are lessening, as is the intimidation of my congregation.
We have streetlights for the first time in ages, which makes things seem safer and more normal.
With every corner shop that reopens for business, with every cafe-owner who serves coffee again, it is possible for us to start thinking positively once more.
And, at last, we are back in our church and we are looking forward to Christmas. My congregation is quite remarkable.
About 1,000 people come to our church – a fairly typical example of Thirties Church of England architecture set in a dusty Baghdad street.
None is an Anglican. They nominally belong to every possible denomination in Iraq – Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and others – but come to our church because they live nearby and it is too dangerous to travel.
. . . Last week we were able to hold a Christmas bazaar and it was a huge success. These are not normally part of an Iraqi Christmas, but all the women in our church now belong to the Mothers' Union and have learned of such events from the British-based organisation.
It was a small but significant step back to normality for a city where life continues to be, in so many ways, grim.
A visitor to the bazaar asked where all the men were. We have only six in our congregation. I responded in a matter-of-fact way: "Oh, most of them have been killed." I wasn't being blasé.
. . . [Christmas] is a time when they can celebrate life in all its fullness. It is about simple hope for the future.
There is much more. Read the article here.