Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Work of Prayer

Daily  prayer is the foundation of a spiritual life in Christ. We pray in the morning and the evening and throughout the day, with an aim for our entire life to be one of prayer. Saint Seraphim places the emphasis on saying the Jesus Prayer.

Saint Seraphim says,
Those who have truly decided to serve the Lord God should practice the remembrance of God and uninterrupted prayer to Jesus Christ, mentally saying: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner... By such exercises in preserving oneself from dispersion and keeping peace of conscience one may draw near to God and be united to Him.
The daily practice of the Jesus Prayer involves numerous disciplined repetitions of this short but all powerful prayer.  As we practice it, our mind is reshaped, our thoughts are tamed, our soul's orientation is pointed towards God, and prayer is always on our lips. 

Saint John Chrysostom  says, 
"Prayer is a great weapon, a rich treasure, a wealth that is never exhausted, an undisturbed refuge, a cause of tranquility, the root of a multitude of blessings and their source and mother"
In prayer we lift ourselves above our thoughts. It is our thoughts that destroy prayer. The main struggle in prayer is not to allow our thoughts to take away our prayer.

Saint Seraphim says,
One must always strive to give oneself up to dispersion of thoughts: for through this the soul turns away from remembrance of God and love of Him...
This is how we get the benefit from prayer, by controlling our thoughts. And it is by regular prayer where we learn to concentrate on God that we learn to control our thoughts.

Saint Seraphim says,
When the mind and the heart are united in prayer and the soul's thoughts are not dispersed, the heart is warmed by spiritual warmth in which the light of Christ shines, making the whole inner man peaceful.
This is our aim, to be united with God. 

More on the practice of the Jesus Prayer
Reference: Little Russian Philokalia, Vol 1, p 30

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Work of Controlling our Talking

To know God directly requires an interior balance and harmony.  We must consider ourselves to be pilgrims yearning for a personal relationship with God.  We need to maximize our communications with things of spiritual nature and minimize our communications about mundane worldly matters. Saint Seraphim warns us that the fire Christ came to light within us can easily be extinguished.  He says the most common thing that cools this fire is unbridled conversation. These spiritual conversations lead us to great growth in knowledge of God.
Saint Seraphim says,
For the guarding of the inner man, one must strive to restrain the tongue from loquacious: "A man of understanding holds his peace (Prov 11:12), and "he that keeps his mouth keeps his life" (Prov 13:3).
Examine your conversations and determine if they involve the kind of discussion that will lead you closer to God. Those which have no spiritual value you should try to minimize as they can be a distraction. This means especially discussions that involve subjects or language you know would not be approved by Christ Himself. Think of Christ in dialogue with His disciples, His discussions on the steps of the Temple. These are the kind we should seek and all others we should minimize.

It is of upmost importance to not discuss our own spiritual life with no one other than our spiritual father. 

As Saint Seraphim says,
Strive with envy means to keep to yourself the treasure of your spiritual gifts. Otherwise you will lose it, and not find it again...
Always act and speak glorifying God. 
Reference: Little Russian Philokalia, Vol 1, p 28 - 29

Monday, November 28, 2011

Our Work Begins with Reverence and Fear of God.

Saint Seraphim directs us to the following Psalm,
Upon his mind there must always be engraved these words of the prophet: "Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling" (Ps 2:11)
All our actions must be done with this in mind.  It is only in this way that our works will aid us in our aim to be united with Him. Saint Seraphim points out that without such an attitude, instead of being blessed, we will be cursed. "Cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord negligently" (Jer. 48:10).
Our work is great and difficult. We need to always cooperate with God's grace. 

Saint Seraphim says,
Reverent carefulness is necessary here because this sea--that is, the heart, with it's thoughts and desires, which one must cleanse by means of mindfulness-- is great and vast, "and there are numberless reptiles there" (Ps 103:27), that is, numerous vain, unjust, and impure thoughts generated by evil spirits.
Much more than faith is necessary. In cooperation with divine grace, we have to do the work necessary to tame the impulses of our biological being, so that all our actions can be directed according to God's will and not be based on our own desires and fears because of our mortality and susceptibility to sickness and suffering.
Reference: Little Russian Philikolia, p 27

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Faith and Works - A Synergy Not Conflict

For many Christians, there is a battle between faith and works.  Some proclaim that our salvation comes through faith alone. They are concerned that one might think they could get to heaven by their own efforts, I guess, without faith. For Orthodox Christians there is no battle between faith and works. We know that both faith and works are necessary. We call it synergic cooperation with God. But, the starting point is always an act of believing in God.
Saint Seraphim tells us the following:
Before anything else, one must believe in God, "that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him (Heb 11:6).
One who is a doubter is like a man lost at sea without a life raft. He is incapable of doing works that will lead him to God.

Saint James says,
"...he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:6-8 NKJV)
Faith is the necessary first step on a journey to be united with God and know Him through direct experience.  Without faith we could not undertake the necessary preparation. We would not know where to begin. Such preparation for many is seen as works without God, trying to earn our way to heaven. This is a concern without basis. To seek to know God, we begin with faith, believing that it is God who sent His Son for our transformation to be united with Him and that it is His teachings that we must follow. With this belief we will undertake meaningful works that with patience leads us to an intimate knowledge of Him.

Faith of necessity involves works. It is James who tells us, "Faith without works is dead" (James2:26).  He points out that the necessary works involved are love, peace, long-suffering, mercy, humility, rest from all works, bearing of the Cross, and life in the Spirit.
Saint Seraphim says,
True faith cannot be without works; one who truly believes will unfailingly have works as well.
Our journey with Christ is one of cooperation where we submit our will to His will to do His work. To realize this we have many works to do in preparation to receive His grace which transforms and unites us with Him. With faith we desire to under take many works to perfect ourselves in His grace.
Reference: Little Russian Philokalia, Vol 1 , p 25.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Receiving the Light of Christ

Our aim is to know God in a direct way, not intellectually or through reason.  This is often referred to as receiving the light of Christ. When we receive this light we experience a sense of joy. When it is a light sent by the devil we feel a bit of agitation or obscureness. 

Saint Seraphim says,
The Christian heart, when it has received something divine, does not demand anything else in order to convince it that this is precisely from the Lord...
Saint Seraphim also gives many pointers about how to prepare to receive this gift of light.

He says,
To receive and behold in the heart the light of Christ, one must, as far as possible, divert one's attention away from the visible objects. Having purified the soul beforehand by repentance and good deeds, and with faith in the Crucified, having closed the bodily eyes, immerse the mind within the heart, in which place cry out with the invocation of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; and then, to the measure of one's zeal and warmth of spirit toward the Beloved, a man finds in the invoked name a delight which awakens the desire to seek higher illumination.
What is important to remember that this gift comes after we have purified our heart and soul of its attachment to the passions of the body and one is committed to a life of ongoing repentance and good deeds, including participation in the sacraments of the Church.
Saint Seraphim goes on to describe this gift.
When a man beholds the eternal light interiorly, his mind is pure and has no sensory representations, but, being totally immersed in contemplation of uncreated goodness, he forgets everything sensory and wishes not even to see himself; he desires rather to hide himself in the heart of the earth if only he not be deprived of this true good--God.
This is the gift that is available to all who are willing to cooperate with God and undertake the necessary preparation.
Reference: Little Russian Philokalia, Vol 1, pp 46-47

Monday, November 21, 2011

Knowing God

Saint Seraphim tells us that we must first know God before we can contemplate Him. It is this direct knowledge that is necessary if we are to truly love Him.
Saint Seraphim writes,

If you do not know God, it is impossible for love of Him to be awakened in you; and you cannot love God if you do not see Him. The vision of God comes from knowledge of Him; for contemplation of Him does not precede knowledge of Him.

How are we to gain this knowledge? This is the question we should all ask ourselves and have great anguish if we cannot experience God in this non intellectual way but through a direct experience of Him and His love.

Saint Seraphim tells us,
"A man becomes perfect in His sight to the extent that he follows in His footsteps; in the true age God will reveal His face to Him."
This knowledge we seek is one that is expressed in a way that "warms" our inner being.

Saint Seraphim expresses it as follows:
God is a fire that warms and kindles the heart and inward parts. And so, if we feel in our hearts coldness, which is of the devil--for the devil is cold--then let us call upon the Lord, and He will come and warm our hearts with perfect love not only for Him, but for our neighbors as well. And from the presence of warmth the coldness of the hater of good will be driven away.
Christ has given us the means through our participation it it's liturgies, sacraments and prescribed practices for all of us, no matter what our spiritual condition, to come to this direct knowledge of Him. This includes the beauty if His Church which uses all means to lift us to heavenly levels. The sacrament of Holy Communion is a direct encounter with Him that works through all parts of our body to transform our fallen nature into one of His likeness. Through Holy Confession we are aided in not just relieving us from our guilt but committing ourselves with His help to change our mind and way of life. We nurture our growth through our regular practice of fasting and daily prayer. This is the Orthodox ways of life and the path to Theosis where we gain a direct knowledge of Him.

Reference: Little Russian Philokalia, Volume 1, p 23

Friday, November 18, 2011

History of Doctrine Series - Theosis

The 9th in the History of Doctrine Series discusses the importance of the doctrine of the two wills of Christ.  I am highlighting this as this is the true significance of the Incarnation that Christ came to join His divine will with out human will so we could then join our human will with His divine will.
Here is the link to this session where you can also view the other sessions in this series.  
I conduct these each Tuesday evening at the Saint George Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Greenville, SC.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Modern Prophecies?

A friend sent me this note concerned about prophecies that are being made by some monastics and asked that I comment on them.  He wrote
I'm sure you are aware of the "prophecies" that some Elders like to quote and opinionate around, such as the liberation of Constantinople, the re-takeover of the Greeks, the Russians helping the Greeks fight off the Turks in a 3 day war, the re-establishment of monarchy and the elevation the new king/emperor of the East. 
I responded,
My only thought is that God is love. And if we focus on loving God as well as our neighbors we will stay on the right course. What good do any of the prophecies do anyway other than raise fear. Orthodoxy is not about fear but about joining with God in Love. Its not right to come to God out of any kind of fear other than awe. To seek union with Him demands our love.
Having said this we must have respect for the elders who live the life of prayer and experience union with God.  They are given in many case special powers, some of which I have head of second hand and are well documented. We also must remember that their prophecies were given in a context for spiritual guidance to an individual and not meant for general publication. I think  the insight that are give is to see the reality of the current conditions and relate them to the teachings of our Lord and then given affirmation of their views in prayer or visions from God in a way that is meant to nurture our spiritual growth.  

We also know we cannot know the time of the end times and Scripture is very clear on this so anyone who gives a spefic timing to any prophecy is definitely to be discounted.  But the warnings about the situations we find in society leading to the end times is probably an isight shared by many in monasteries.  They do see the Church under tremendous attack from the devil. The best course in hearing thiese prophecies of modern times is to let them be a reminder that we can face death at any time and need to be ready for entering the next life with God. Nothing else matters.  We know eventually what we know of this world will be destroyed and there will be a transformation and a new creation.  If we have a direct relationship with God we can have hope that we will be with Him at this time and joyfully united with Him in His kingdom.

The benefit of most publicized prophecies is to promote the writings themselves.  Be cautious is my advice.  The political activities of this world are here only to assist us in our purpose to be united with God as one. Our primary concern should be about preparing for eternal life in the heavenly kingdom recognizing the temporary nature of our life in this earthly kingdom.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Death - A Beautiful Moment

I just sat with my Mom as she took her last breath. It has made me think about how privileged I am to have been present at this moment.  My mom was 94 years old and married for 72 years. She had an incurable disease which allowed her to die gradually and peacefully without pain.  I witnessed her strong faith when six months ago she made the decision to accept Hospice care and to move to the nursing home where she died. Yes, she is at peace now and hopefully embraced by God in His Kingdom. But this moment is still a haunting one for me. Of course I miss her, but I wonder how I will face this same moment. Will I show the same faith?

She was a Methodist and in the process of making the arrangements for her I was troubled by their lack of  tradition to care for her soul.  She had made arrangements to cremated.  I had to honor her wishes and sat at the funeral home with mixed feelings as my father and I arranged for this event prohibited in the Orthodox Church.  The funeral home did have a policy of preparing the body for viewing prior to the cremation and emphasized the respect and care they had for the body once they received it which was a bit of comfort.

I then had to think about the services we would have for her.  When I talked with the minister, he said "What would you like me to do? What prayers and hymns would you like? I was a bit taken aback by this as in the Orthodox faith there are specific services for these important moments. Whatever service we wanted to have was to be tailored to whatever I and my family wanted. When I inquired about the internment of the ashes, I was told that it was not necessary for anyone to be there.  They would see that they were put in the memorial garden next to the Church.  They could be mailed to the church so we wold not be troubled in any way. Again no special attention or tradition. This is such a contrast to Orthodoxy tradition where there is no question about what to do at such moments because there are beautiful prayers and services that have been repeated for centuries for such occasions.

I had earlier contacted the local Orthodox Priest to see if he would be willing to do a Trisagion service at the viewing we were planning to have for the immediate family.  He said, "No, I cannot do this.  She has her faith.  They need to take care of this." As I was going through making all these arrangement with my father I felt separated from my church.  Neither my church or her church seemed to have a way to respond based on any tradition for such a time. We had to make it up. I wondered why the Orthodox Church would not be willing to pray for the repose of my mom because she was a Methodist.  It seemed to me our Orthodox prayers were needed in light of their lack of tradition.  I had talked earlier with my mom about the hymns she liked and other memorial services she thought were well done.  So I was able to put together a service for her memorial which was to take place three days after her death.  She had a favorite singer she had heard at her church.  My Dad called him the morning after she died and miracously he was just getting off the plane when he called and was open for the next days service. He has a wonderful smile and connects with his audience when he sings.  It was comforting to hear and see him perform. The minister, a presbyterian serving in a methodist church, organized the event. It turned out to be a very nice memorial but still nothing like our Orthodox funeral service with attention to the soul, its need for forgiveness and prayers.

We had the viewing, the minister came and said a short prayer.  We all said good bye to Mom and headed off to the memorial service which was held in a beautiful chapel that is part of the retirement community where they have lived for the last 20 years.  I did not feel emotionally upset, but felt a deep sorrow, not just for the loss of my Mom, but that I felt abandoned by my church in this moment.
The last breath of life is a beautiful one, it is when we begin to make the transition from this world to God's kingdom. One thing is for sure, from now on, this moment is imprinted in my mind in a way I can never forget. I will never take for granted the beautiful services we have for this as well as other significant moments in our life.  The value of tradition was made very clear to me.

Glory be to God for the Orthodox Faith.
Lord have mercy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Nativity Fast

Make ready, O Bethlehem: let the manger be prepared, let the cave show it's welcome. The truth has come, the shadow has passed away...
On November 15th we begin the forty day period where we proclaim the miracle of God becoming man. This is the time in the Orthodox Church where our attention is drawn to the great mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  We await his coming in anticipation of the great joy of His birth on Christmas Day. For our preparation the wisdom of our Church asks us to participate in a fast, with all the inconvenience and discomfort it may bring. If this is a season of such great joy, why is this the practice of Orthodox Christians around the world? Why are we asked to fast when we hear daily the hymn "Hark, the herald angels sing!" almost every pace we go?
By our fasting we are reminded that this is not simply the birth of a baby, but God being united with man.  It is the moment when the unchangeable is joined with the changeable, eternal life with mortal life, He who holds the universe in His hand and who created all comes in the flesh for our salvation.
Thou who has adorned the vault of heaven with stars has been well pleased to be born as a babe; and Thou. Who holds all the ends of the earth in the hallow of Thy hand art laid in a manger of dumb beasts... (Sticheron of  Third Hour, Eve of the Nativity)
This is an event that should make us tremble with awe and wonder, bring us to humility and desiring to offer thanksgiving. But are we not engulfed in the secular traditions of this holiday season with its focus on gifts and parties, where the significance of this great event is often less than an afterthought? Do we take time to think about why God was incarnated and became man? Do we reflect on the truth that it is through His becoming one with us that we can now become one with Him? Do we remember that before this event man was not able to overcome the fear of death, held in bondage to sin? The reality is that the Virgin birth of Jesus is the greatest miracle in the history of mankind. Now man can become like God and be united with Him in Paradise with eternal life. With a fast we are preparing for celebration of the beginning of the transformative journey He prepared for our salvation.
November 15 is the starting point for a spiritual journey to the day of this great joy.  This journey is one one that requires our development of greater humility so we can fully appreciate what God have given to us.  This is by nature an ascetic journey. Like our journey to be united with God, it is not one where we can make use of our social relationships or our material possessions.  This is a journey where we must learn to surrender our souls to the will of God, relinquish our control over the journey to Him whose birth we are about to celebrate. This is the spirit we must embrace as we enter into this fast. It is a period of preparation just as the manger was prepared for Christ.
Make ready, O Bethlehem: let the manger be prepared, let the cave show it's welcome. The truth has come, the shadow has passed away; born of a Virgin, God has appeared to men, formed as we are and making godlike the garment He has put on. Therefore Adam is renewed with Eve, and they call out: 'Thy good pleasure has appeared on earth to save our kind.' 
Christmas Day is about the great mystery of God's becoming like us, we who are bound to death, so He can transform us to become like Him, overcoming our mortality and becoming fully alive in Him. The Canon of Matins for the Nativity says, "He establishes a path for us, whereby we may mount up to heaven." This coming event is not just about God coming to us, but all of humanity being lifted up into He who is born on Christmas Day in the form of man, Christ the Incarnation of God.
This Nativity fast is to help us lift ourselves above all those things which bind us to our worldly life, freeing ourselves to be united in Him. As we fast we are reminded that we depend on Him for our food and have also are in need for spiritual food that is much more than our daily bread. We learn this by forgoing the extra sweets, the pleasurable drinks, the abundant foods so we will not be fully satisfied by the earthly pleasures but seek instead the treasures that are beyond this life and world. In this process of fasting we are lifting our thoughts to things that are of the heavenly realm that bring us true joy and unbounded pleasures. The fast is a time to break our attachments to those things which have power over us, learning to set them aside so we can be freely governed by God's will alone.
By engaging in this period of fasting where we can work towards our purification with the help of God's grace, we cooperate with God in our spiritual growth and the all important journey to become one with Him.  after all, this is the aim of our Orthodox way of life. In this way we are able to approach Him on Christmas Day with joy, just as did the Magi and the shepherds of Bethlehem.
Cleansing our minds through fasting, let us offer through our lives virtues instead of myrrh, preparing with faith our entry into the feast of the Nativity, storing up treasure in our souls and crying: Glory in the highest to God in Trinity, whose good pleasure is not
revealed to men, that in His love for mankind He may set Adam free from the ancestral curse (death). Christmas Day is truly the day of our Salvation. This is the joy we should celebrate when this day comes.
The Nativity Fast is like the fast of Lent, but not quite as strict. Let us not rebel against such self-imposed constraints on our desires, but embrace this practice which Christ Himself practiced and called us to do likewise when He said, "When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites." Note he did not say IF you fast, but WHEN you fast.  Why do we resist this important practice? It seems odd that we are willing to pay large sums of money to enter into special diet programs like Jenny Craig, while, when the Church asked us to engage inn such rates for our spiritual well being, we resist and even think it something impossible to do.  Unfortunately fasting is not practiced in much of the Christian world the days. Our Protestant friends do not fast and evn the Catholics no longer give much importance to fasting. It is a Tradition given to us through Christ Himself and passed on to us by the Apostles that many have lost.  But the Orthodox Church still teaches at his important practice. If you do choose to follow our Lord and do as He asks of us and enter into a fast in preparation of this most special day, you will be rewarded when that day comes. 
There are two periods in the Nativity fast. The first is the period from November 15 to December 19. The second is from the 12th to Christmas eve. In the first period the practice as taught by the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States is to maintain a strict fast on Wednesday and Friday as normal and to abstain from meat and dairy on the other days with fish, wine and oil allowed. From the 20th of December on it is a strict fast with wine and oil allowed only on Saturday and Sunday. You can follow the fasting guidelines as shown on the calendar included in the bulletin or on the Church calendar provided to you each year.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Knowing God Through His Energies

The Fathers teach that we know God through His energies. What are energies?

Christos Yannaras describes energies as,
"Those potentials of nature or essence to make known the hypostasis and it's existence, and to make it known and participable."

Let's think about this in terms of our relationship with another person. What is it that distinguishes one person from another? Isn't it their energies? It is through a direct encounter with another person where we experience their energies that we are able to know their unique otherness. It is in this way that we know them in truth. Any abstract knowledge that comes from what they have written or what others have written about them is only indirect knowledge. By examining their work, their art, or anything they have made we only have limited knowledge of them. To know their otherness we must share in their energies involved in a personal and face to face relationship. When we meet them, hear them speak, see their look, experience how they act we can say we know them directly by participating in their energies. Otherwise, we can only say we know them indirectly.

This is also true with God. It is through His energies that we know Him as distinct from His creation. Through the reading of Scripture or our study of His creation we can only know Him indirectly. To know him in truth, like an encounter with another person, we must participate in His energies. This requires a relationship where we share in His uncreated divine energies. This is in a direct relationship with God, just like Peter, Paul and the other Apostles, the saints and elders who know His uncreated divine light experienced, that we too can know Him.

To know God directly is to "become partakers of his divine energies." (2Peter 1:4) This needs to be our aim in life. Our salvation demands much more than a declaration of faith or a knowledge of Scripture and more than theorizing or knowledge of any abstract dogma about reality. These only give us indirect knowledge of God. Our salvation requires a transformation that comes from the sharing, participating in, a direct encounter with the uncreated energies of God, becoming one with His energies. This is what we call Theosis. This is how we know God in truth through knowing His energies.

Reference: Elements of Faith, Christos Yannaras, pp 37 -46

Friday, November 4, 2011

Fire of Your Love

I found this quote sent to me to be most inspiring.

"When you become aware of the increasing fire of your love for God and inner faith in him then you should realise that you are bringing Christ to birth within your soul. It is he who is lifting your soul high above its earthly and visible limitations and preparing a dwelling place for it in the heavens. When you experience your heart filled with joy, and consumed with yearning for God’s ineffable blessings, then know that the divine Spirit is working within you. When you feel your intellect filled with ineffable light and spiritual understandings of transcendent wisdom, then recognise that the Paraclete is actively present in your soul, uncovering the treasures of the Kingdom of Heaven that lie hidden within it.”
~St. Nicetas Stethatos of Studium

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Is Faith Instilled Through Education?

Where does faith come from?  Saint Theophan the Recluse tells us
"Faith in the existence of God and His almightyness is an inherent property of the spirit which is found in each person as soon as his aptitudes are developed."
Education only develops faith and gives it a form so it can be continually nurtured through worldly activities.  This is quite different than the faith we gain in society.  Society instills faith in its norms through education.  All norms of society come from the human mind and are made firm though laws and accepted practices of a given society.  All this needs to be learned because they are not naturally inherent in ones being.  They are external and the mind needs to be conditioned to learn these norms that lead to  faiths like patriotism, political freedom and democracy.

Faith in God is a bit different than any faith we have in society.  We are made in God's image. We do not have to learn from any form of education the nature of this image.  It is in our make-up.  To know God requires a different kind of knowing than we use to know the ways of society.  Faith in God cannot be learned by study.  It can only be gained though an inner opening of our heart to the reality that exists there.

There are many ways we can come to a knowledge of God which lead us to faith.  We can find God through our experiences with His creation, especially if we spend time in wilderness areas where man has had no influence.  There, all we see is the work of God and we experience its incredible beauty which opens our heart to what is within.  God can send us a vision like He did to Saint Paul on his journey to Damascus.  Such visions of the uncreated light and voice of God are immediately transforming but rare.  We can read the Gospel which then turns on a light in our heart and we find it explains what we feel deep inside.  It opens our heart to what is already there. We can be moved by a spiritual guide or friend who gives us an insight that unlocks these inner secrets.  Faith will come not by formal education but but through insight, an experience that lets us know the reality of what we have already inside us.

What does this say about Christian education?  Can we learn faith at school by forced prayer or forced Bible study? Can we gain faith though new laws? What is the value of Sunday school where we try to force feed our children information about how we speak and practice our faith?  Are these efforts all in vain?

No, not entirely, as these attempts at education may for some awaken what they already have within.  But for others. these activities can instill a rationalization that will lead to a rejection of God if it is based on the assumption that you can explain God and faith through rational discourse.  Sound Christian education has to be that which inspires one to seek what is within.  It needs to place an emphasis on what cannot be explained our understood by our rational mind.  It has to encourage one to live in the mystery and to seek what is beyond the knowledge of society.

This is the basis of prayer and the Orthodox worship service.  Properly guided the attendance in the Divine Liturgy should be more important and a few minutes in a Sunday school class room.  The class room can only help us explain and share what we have gained from our inner experience.  It gives us a  language to share what is not really sharable.

In concluding, here is a thought from Saint Theophan,
If everyone has faith, it follows that the norm of the human life undeniably includes faith.  consequently, he who does not have faith departs from this norm, and is a moral freak.  All nonbelievers are of this order.

Reference: The Spiritual LIfe, pp 301-303