One is the practice of praying to Mary/saints (or is it asking them for their prayers?)--I have always been taught that this is unnecessary at best and a distraction from praying to God.
When you look at the kinds of prayers we address to Saint Mary, you see that they are not at all a distraction from God, but focusing on Him explicitly.
In fact, Saint Mary, like all of the saints, is so revered because of what God has wrought in her -- and since in her case that is none other than God Himself
, she is very highly honored indeed. Here is one example of a prayer from the Agpeya (the Coptic book of the hours; I cannot speak for the EO, as I'm not one, but I think the thinking about their prayers would be the same in this case) to illustrate what I mean; You can decide for yourself if it's 'over the top' or whatever...for me, as someone who is ex-Roman Catholic, I find the very grounded/balanced Mariology of the Orthodox to be very refreshing:"O pure Virgin, overshadow your servant with your instant help, and keep the waves of evil thoughts away from me, and raise up my ailing soul for prayer and vigil, for it has gone into a deep sleep. For you are a capable, compassionate and helpful mother, the bearer of the Fountain of Life, my King and my God, Jesus Christ, my hope."
You see that? She helps
us, because she is a good mother, and that's what good mothers do. And, of course, she is
the bearer of the Fountain of Life, so in properly venerating her, our focus is turned to our God (and her God), Jesus Christ.
Another is that there seem to be an awful lot of rules--fasting days being one example, women not being allowed to commune during their period (I thought we were well past the idea of being unclean at that time of the month), etc. Doesn't Scripture speak against exactly that kind of focus on external observances?
No, not at all. What gives you this idea? Not only is there the actual establishment of the sacrament of communion via our Lord's own hand and command ("take, drink of this all of you..."), but we see clearly how the apostles themselves did not shirk the rules that would establish spiritual health in the context of receiving our Lord as He wants us to, as in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29: "Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body." So, when you are contemplating why we have these rules, and especially why we fast, you can know that this is why. We seek to be worthy as we can be (all the time knowing that we are not worthy in ourselves, but rely on God's mercy that our sacrifice may be acceptable to Him), which entails purification and discipline. Self-mastery, if you will. I deny myself the food I would otherwise crave not to conform to some silly rule, but because this has always been the norm when going to receive from God. Moses fasted to receive the tablets of stone, but we fast to receive the bread of life that truly nourishes (John 1:17 is a good verse to consider here). Fasting is a wonderful tool for spiritual fitness/exercise. We happily engage in it because just like the saints, it helps us. As Habte has put it, these are all to build faith, not to become distractions. I could fast the entire year and pray to every saint of our church and if my faith in God is not increasing through this discipline, then something is wrong and should go see my priest to be corrected. It is possible to take on too much, too soon or something like that (the first time I tried to fast beyond the weekly Wednesday/Friday fast, I failed miserably), and in Orthodoxy there is "oikonomia" so that rules do not become like an albatross around our necks, but rather help to guide us and strengthen our faith as they were intended to do.
Certainly Jesus had a lot to say to the Pharisees in that regard, but then again I realize that they were doing all those things but ignoring the bigger things like loving their neighbor.
Yes, and those words apply to us when we behave like that...so let's not behave like that.
Finally, what do the Orthodox say about the relationship between faith, works and salvation?
We are for all of them, yes.
In Orthodoxy, you will find that many things that are divided up or thought of as binary opposing states in western Christianity (both Protestant and Catholic) are looked at much more holistically. I believe that this would be one of those things. We know that faith and works are not in competition with each other, but rather are both necessary for salvation, which is an ongoing, dynamic
reality, and not a simple positional state. We are, we hope, being
saved, rather than declaring ourselves to in this or that state and calling it a day. I'm not sure whether this answers your question or not (it's kind of broad and I'm not sure what presuppositions you bring to it, as I myself was never Lutheran), but I hope it at least helps a little bit. May God guide you on your exploration of the Orthodox faith.